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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Magic’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, though, there just aren’t enough charms out there to save your film…

Magic (1978)
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Richard Attenborough

Only a dummy could bring together some of the best talent on hand and still end up with a miss.

Kind of like this one:

We open as the credits pan over the walls of Merlin Jr. (E.J. Andre), a stage magician who’s better days are long behind him. Into his apartment comes Corky (Anthony Hopkins), his protégé, who starts to tell Merlin about how well his set went down. We intercut between Corky telling the story and scenes of what actually took place, which Merlin figures out without being in the editing room between the two reels: The Cork-ster’s stage fright got the better of him and he had a meltdown in the middle of the act.

Merlin offers some sage advice before we never see him in the film again: He needs a gimmick, something that goes beyond just trying to do card tricks, something that can help with the stage fright and allow him to relax.

The next cut is apparently a few months later, where people are lining up outside the venue to watch Corky. Among those in attendance is someone from one of the big television networks, Todson (David Ogden Stiers) who has a table with talent agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith), aka “the Postman” so named because he always delivers for his clients.

We get to see Corky’s new act and how he brought in the crowds (in an NSFW clip):

Everything’s looking up for Corky and Fats, and getting the network to offer a pilot built around the act should have been a triumph. But when Greene tells Corky that the network refuses to waive the medical certification, this leads to panic, and faster than you can say “Dave Chappelle,” Corky and Fats hop in a cab and play the driver to take them away, up the Hudson Valley to a small town, then pays extra to the cabbie to forget he took them there.

It’s not just any small town upstate; it’s where he grew up, and where his early crush from grade school, Peggy-Ann Snow (Ann-Margaret) now runs the campsite where seasonal cabins can be rented. Despite being way out of season, Peggy-Ann is offered so much money that she opens one for Corky and Fats to hide out in.

Corky tries to re-connect with Peggy-Ann, by sharing memories of the past and forcing her to be part of an edgy card trick. She still has some interest in the Cork-ster, even though she’s married to someone else. The fact that she’s married to Duke (Ed Lauter) in a loveless marriage, though, gives Corky a much better chance of winning her over than he might otherwise have had.

As Corky and Fats keep up the seduction, Greene tracks them down to the cabin, where he tries to get through to Corky that he may need help:

So too did the film, which on paper should have been a bigger hit than it turned out to be. There’s nothing wrong with Attenborough’s direction, and he had a lot of great talent to work with. Especially noteworthy is Hopkins, who is also listed as the actor playing “Fats” in the end credits. The research that Hopkins undertook for the role to play a ventriloquist shows up on screen in his character, where we get one scene where Corky’s practicing new material in front of the mirror closely, trying to catch every time he might say B, F, M, P, V, W, and Y, and put in substitutions in to avoid moving his lips.

Part of the talented crew included William Goldman, one of the more celebrated screenwriters of the time. It’s hard to believe that the man who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride over his career could have turned in a script that just didn’t work.

What may have been a problem was Goldman being too close to his own source material. When he wrote the novel Magic in 1976, he was a very hot property, with his scripts for both Marathon Man and All the President’s Men pulling in raves. The fact that Marathon Man was likewise based on a novel Goldman wrote was probably why Joseph E. Levine didn’t think to have someone else work on adapting it.

Unlike in the novel, you don’t see too many scenes in the script where we question whether Fats is a malevolent entity ruining someone’s life, or if it’s just that Corky’s head is put on wrong. It’s the lack of doubt which the book relies on that makes it hard to find the film’s hook. Which isn’t helped by the way the studio tried to the movie, such as in their TV advertising, suggesting that there had to be something involved other than just one man’s breakdown:

This would become the underlying problem for the movie. Goldman’s novel was a psychological thriller that had ways to keep the reader guessing as to what was really going on that the film couldn’t use directly from the book. This was something another screenwriter or someone else in the producer’s office not fixated on assembling a film package for quick sale might have seen and tried to fix.

The end result is a film that’s far less than the sum of its parts. There was disappointment among the audience, as the movie was never going to deliver on its promotion that suggested that the ventriloquist’s dummy might be responsible for everything that goes wrong, the same way Hugo in the film Devil Doll and Willie in The Twilight Zone episode “The Dummy” were.

The person connected with the film who most likely had the least disappointment with how things turned out was Attenborough. He agreed to direct this as part of a deal that saw Levine later produce his dream project, Gandhi.

He was willing to do a quickie film in order to on-board a producer for a major epic; no dummy could refuse that…


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