MAGIC *** USA 1978 Dir: Richard Attenborough. 107 mins
Adapted by William Goldman from his own novel and adorned with an unsettling harmonica theme courtesy of composer Jerry Goldsmith, this lone foray into horror for director Richard Attenborough acted as a stepping stone to getting his pet project, GHANDI, financed.
Anthony Hopkins delivers one of his greatest performances as troubled, talented magician / ventriloquist Corky, who adds a profane dummy named Fats to his act and is soon touted by cigar puffing agent Burgess Meredith as a bigger star prospect than Steve Martin. Life seems on the up: he gets on the Carson show and rekindles his romance with high school sweetheart Ann-Margret. Sombre family flashbacks, however, highlight Corky’s lifelong insecurities and emotional vulnerability – and Meredith is the first to see how cracked he is. While Corky can never escape his overwhelming fears of personal and professional failure, Fats takes over his mind and life.
Written and paced as a drama with horrific elements, much of MAGIC focuses on the turbulent relationship between Corky and his old flame – and Ann-Margret does what she can with an underwritten, relatively thankless part, while certain extraneous supporting characters (notably Ed Lauter’s jealous, abusive ex) are all too clearly dummy fodder. The film is galvanised by Hopkins’ dual performance, brilliantly conveying Corky’s breakdown: note the quietly devastating sequence in which Meredith forces him to go cold turkey with Fats for a short period of time – and he caves after just a few minutes. Attenborough borrows a lot from Hitchcock: a suspenseful corpse disposal sequence forces us to root for the tortured protagonist / antagonist while scenes of Corky twitchily showing up right after Fats has killed someone confirm the parallels to Norman Bates and Mother. It’s a tad too leisurely to be truly successful – and, inevitably, can’t hold a candle to the peerless Michael Redgrave ventriloquist segment from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945).
Review by Steven West