The Film: 3 stars
A very young-looking (actually 40 years old) Anthony Hopkins plays Corky, a nervy, sad-sack magician whose manager wants to get him on television. The problem, we learn, with magic on television is that the objectivity of the camera spoils the misdirection at the heart of stage magic; the film was, of course, produced before such telly hits as Penn & Teller’s Fool Us. But no matter – Corky’s unique selling point is that he combines magic and ventriloquy, using a puppet named Fats, also voiced by Hopkins. Since there’s only one story about dummies, dolls, mannequins, marionettes and puppets, you may well have guessed where this is going. Still, William Goldman’s (Marathon Man, The Princess Bride) script is smart enough to retain interest anyway; it may be full of more 70s-isms than the casting (the trainer from Rocky! The mum from Tommy!), but it avoids hokey Gothic clichés in favour of a noirish rural melodrama evoking Psycho and The Postman Always Rings Twice, as Corky – in the film’s most unlikely conceit – seduces old high-school flame Ann-Margret with the power of ventriloquism. We’re shown how awful her dead-end marriage is, but it must be even worse than we realise for a ventriloquist to seem like a charmer to her.
Soon enough, of course, the bodies are piling up, but the emotional believability of the underrated Ann-Margret and the rightly-rated Hopkins grounds the film. Still years away from Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins seems to evoke that other great screen psycho, Anthony Perkins, albeit with a funny accent, New York via Newport. Richard Attenborough, on a high coming off A Bridge Too Far the year before, provides sympathetic direction, and Jerry Goldsmith, probably Hollywood’s finest composer of horror scores, provides a lush yet unnerving score.
Audio and Visuals: 4 stars
The picture is crisp, with the muted greens, blues and browns of the film’s handsome exteriors – shot by veteran cinematographer Victor Kemper in Northern California – benefitting wonderfully. The sound is clean and well-balanced, with the busy opening in New York City contrasting nicely with the quiet, even desolate rural setting of the remainder of the film.
Presentation: 3 stars
The film’s original poster – with its rather clumsy tagline, “Abracadabra, I sit on his knee./Presto change, and now he is me./Hocus pocus, we take her to bed./Magic is fun; we’re dead.” – adorns the box art and menu. The latter features a brief harmonica riff associated with Fats in the movie.
Extras: 4 stars
Filmed in 2006, “Screenwriting for Dummies”, an interview with William Goldman, is the headlining extra here, with Goldman in fine form as he shares anecdotes and reminiscences. Even better though is “Fats & Friends”, a sort of part-making of, part-history of ventriloquy, hosted by Fats the dummy himself. Elsewhere, Hopkins is interviewed twice, once on television and once on radio, and cinematographer Victor Kemper gives a short but technical interview. Then there are the usual trailers, plus a superfluous make-up test for Ann-Margret, complete with cheesy period disco music.
Overall: 3 stars
Magic may be a little too silly to quite reach the status of classic, forgotten or otherwise, but with the loving attention given it by Second Sight here, it at least merits a rental – if only renting were still viable.
Magic is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.