Merlin (E J Andre), an elderly ailing magician, awaits the return of his protégé Corky (Anthony Hopkins) from an amateur talent night.
Corky lies to his mentor, telling him that his turn on stage was a roaring success. But, as Merlin suspects, the truth is that the drunken audience were not interested in Corky's magic act. Merlin suggests Corky lacks charm, and if he can find a gimmick to give him some presence he will stand more chance of breaking the crowds.
A year later, Merlin has passed away and Corky is a triumph of the stage - thanks to his ventriloquist act. His agent Ben (Burgess Meredith) invites a TV executive to a nightclub one evening to witness Corky's act. Initially sceptical, the executive takes a sudden interest when Corky introduces his foul-mouthed dummy Fats to the stage, eliciting howls of laughter from the mesmerised audience.
Days later, Ben meets Corky at a plush hotel with some good news - the TV studio wants to commission a pilot episode. If it's a success Corky will get a lengthy contract out of them. Corky's delight soon turns sour when he learns he will have to undergo a medical examination first. Ben persists with Corky, eager to get the deal closed. But when he informs Corky he was unable to get the studio executives to change their policy on medicals, Corky disappears - retreating to a remote town in the Catskills where he grew up.
It's there that Corky (with Fats in tow, of course) plans to hide from the pressure of impending success and the fear of failure that dogs him. It's also there that he meets up with Peggy (Ann-Margret), a girl he had a secret crush on as a kid.
All seems to go well for a while, with Peggy falling for Corky's shy charms and vowing to leave her absent husband Duke (Ed Lauter). But when Ben manages to track Corky down and comes harassing him to get his head checked over his spooky connection with Fats, the cracks in Corky's fragile mental state truly start to appear. Duke's return doesn't help any, especially as he becomes immediately suspicious of the relationship old pal Corky has been having with his wife in his absence.
Things are certainly beginning to get rocky for the unstable ventriloquist.
There have been many attempts at creepy ventriloquist's dummy films over the years - most notably the early musical THE GREAT GABBO, which certainly echoes MAGIC'S themes, and the Michael Redgrave segment of Ealing's DEAD OF NIGHT. It's hardly surprising that, in the horror-heavy 1970s, William Goldman's novel of MAGIC would be optioned for film adaptation.
Director Richard Attenborough's MAGIC succeeds on many level, but not least of all on account of its above-average performances. Hopkins is as reliable as ever (even when wearing hideous woolly jumpers), a quietly neurotic slave to his own high expectations, prone to sweating profusely whenever the threat of failure looms. Ann-Margret finds depth and humanity in a character lesser actresses would have failed to illuminate. Being the most sympathetic character in the entire film, it's great that she gets it right.
The supporting actors are arguably the strongest links, however. Lauter shines as a confused, ultimately scared, husband - clearly relishing the chance to play something other than a barking soldier or school coach. And Meredith steals every scene he's in. He simply has to look deadpan as Hopkins is sweating his angst out, and he wins the acting honours hands-down.
The script (Goldman wrote the screenplay too) is for the most part naturalistic and free from cliché. Fats' insults are tempered down from the novel, but you still get the idea. The screenplay's less ambiguous than I remembered it being (it's a long time since I last saw this!), but the effect is not lessened by this.
Attenborough directs with a sure hand, employing the right amount of restraint to keep the creepier scenes from spilling over into the realms of melodrama. He only drops the ball once, during an overwrought love scene between Hopkins and Margret. I didn't know whether to vomit or laugh, this scene is so bad - with Jerry Goldsmith's obvious score compounding the matter.
Still, MAGIC is an overall sombre piece that stands out thanks to its smart pacing, believable script, sympathetic performances and lush photography. Fats is a triumph in himself too - a genuinely creepy looking piece of wood (fashioned to resemble Hopkins).
The film, a sleeper hit in the summer of 1978, has aged very well.
MAGIC makes its debut on to UK blu-ray courtesy of our good friends at Second Sight Films.
Presented as an MPEG-4 AVC signal in full 1080p HD on a dual layer disc, the uncut film - 107 minutes and 4 seconds in length - looks rather beautiful. Proffering a clean but natural 16x9 transfer which preserves the original ratio, picture quality here serves up strong, eye-catching colours and a deep sense of satisfying filmic texture and depth. Flesh tones are genuine throughout, while the print utilised is remarkably free from damage or debris.
English audio comes in a healthily balanced, clean and clear lossless mono mix. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easily readable at all times.
A pop-up scene selection menu allows access to the film via 12 chapters.
A welcome host of bonus features have all been made available before, notably on the American Dark Sky and British Anchor Bay DVD releases of several years back.
"Screenwriting for Dummies" is an interesting 16 minute featurette which interviews Goldman. He talks of his initial inspiration, the research he put into the medium when writing his novel, and his adventures of getting the film made. His honesty is raw and refreshing, making him a compelling host.
"Fats and Friends" sees ventriloquist Dennis Alwood give us a brief history of films based on the subject, plus his own recollections of the filming of MAGIC. It's interesting to note that Norman Jewison was initially going to direct, and that Jack Nicholson was originally cast as Corky - but pulled out because he didn't want to wear a hairpiece. At 26 minutes, this is a wholly engaging featurette. In a nice touch, Alwood even brings the dummy Fats to life on his lap.
An 11-minute interview with cinematographer Victor Kemper is a nice addition, the esteemed expert going into some detail about what his job actually entails. He not only pin-points scenes in MAGIC that were difficult to lens tonally, but also backs up Goldman's observations that Hopkins was a perfectionist, constantly rehearsing between takes.
Next up is an archive 7-minute interview with Hopkins for Spanish TV. This was clearly shot at the time of the film's theatrical release. The interviewer not only translates Hopkins' answers into Spanish, but offers his questions in dual language format too. A very considerate act towards the star before him and the viewers at home, of course, but one which means this is pretty slow-going. It's also quite amusing at the same time, and testament to Hopkins that he simply smiles graciously throughout the whole ordeal. A 3-minute radio interview with Hopkins is accompanied by archival outtakes footage. Hopkins expands on his break into acting here. Hopkins sounds sincere when he speaks of how he took into his profession to overcome shyness, and copes with it by treating it "like a game". He does touch upon MAGIC too, including how he strove to learn the art of ventriloquism for his role. Although a little muffled, this is a valid addition to the disc.
81 seconds of Ann-Margret's make-up screen test footage is set to chipper pop music, and find's the auburn beauty in a jovial mood.
The film's original American theatrical trailer is an enjoyably histrionic affair, looking nice and grainy here in a 16x9 presentation. It runs at just over 2 minutes in length.
"Joseph E Levine presents ... a terrifying love story ...". 2-and-a-half minutes of pillar-boxed TV spots are derived from various territories such as America, Spain and Italy.
Finally, we get 101 seconds of archive radio spots. MAGIC stands the test of time extremely well, and looks better than ever on Second Sight Films' excellent blu-ray release.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Second Sight Films|