Saturday, July 23, 2016

#236: The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926)

Like a lot of films I've reviewed on this site in the last several weeks, The Magician is a solidly reliable entertainment, neither a lost classic nor a piece of junk. The film is exciting and creepy, with  a nice sense of humor and a quick pace, and was one of the first American horror films to play the dark parts of its story straight, without the pratfalls, parodies, and gags of most of its predecessors.
Director Rex Ingram (not to be confused with the actor of the same name) adapted The Magician from a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham hated the resulting film, which is probably one of the earliest examples of that hallowed Hollywood tradition of writers bitching about movie adaptations of their work. I haven't read the Maugham novel, so he may have some valid objections, but the movie is just fine on its own terms.
Set in Paris, The Magician begins with sculptor Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry) in her studio, putting the finishing touches on a massive sculpture. Unfortunately, a small crack in the clay expands and keeps expanding, and the entire head and upper torso of the devilish figure fall off and land on Margaret, paralyzing her. Margaret's uncle, Dr. Porhoet (Firmin Gemier), asks celebrated American surgeon and colleague Dr. Arthur Burdon (Ivan Petrovich) to operate on his niece. He agrees, the surgery is a success, and Arthur and Margaret proceed to fall in love. Things seem great.
The happy couple doesn't know it yet, but they have a big problem. The group of medical students observing the surgery included deranged magician Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener, German actor/director most famous for co-directing and playing the lead role in The Golem). Haddo is obsessed with locating a notorious ancient spell that will summon forth new life, and it's bad news for Margaret when the spell requires the "heart blood of a maiden" with blonde hair. Haddo begins following Margaret, placing her under a spell when he gets her alone, and finally kidnapping her for the conclusion of his evil plan. Since she must remain a virgin for the spell to work, Margaret could have avoided this whole mess by getting it on with Arthur, but this is an American film from 1926 so no one even considers that angle. A famous artist in swinging '20s Paris with a hot-shot American doctor boyfriend, and they're a couple of Puritans? Come on now.
Sexual inhibitions aside, The Magician benefits greatly from Wegener's enjoyable performance as Haddo. He hams it up perfectly as the villainous magician, giving one of the great over-the-top pieces of acting in silent film. I particularly enjoyed a scene in which Dr. Burdon insults Haddo by saying the latter man appears to have stepped right out of a melodrama. Haddo, walking away, turns and glares intensely at Burdon, then dramatically pulls his cape about himself and marches off. Villains just don't wear capes enough these days.
Ingram assembled quite an international cast for an American film. Besides Wegener from Germany, the actors included Gemier from France, Petrovich from what is now Serbia and was then Austria-Hungary, and Gladys Hamer from England, with Indiana-born Terry the sole American in a leading role. Ingram found the right faces for the parts, a luxury silent film afforded.
While watching The Magician and one of the previous silent films I reviewed on this site, The Bells, I started thinking about what scared people in the 1920s. It's fascinating to me that in the period between the two world wars, the two most common plots in horror films were someone falling under the spell of an evil mesmerist and an average person haunted by a guilty conscience after committing a murder. The Magician is obviously an example of the first camp. Something to chew on until next time.

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