(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we go point your attention over there while we discuss movies about magicians over here!)
Movies about magicians come in all shapes and varieties. To be clear, I’m speaking of films about the performers, those who do magic tricks and illusions, as opposed to the wizards you find in fantasy films and late-80s Fred Savage movies. They range from documentaries (Make Believe, 2010) to comedies (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, 2013) to biopics (Death Defying Acts, 2007) to Swedish genre-benders (The Magician, 1958) to BDSM noirs (Lord of Illusions, 1995) to the best movie about a magician you’ll ever find (The Prestige, 2006).
/Film’s own Peter Sciretta previously compiled a list of the best films about magic and magicians which includes a few of the titles mentioned above, but readers of this column know the goal here is to recommend ones that are far less celebrated. To that end, keep reading for a look at six great and/or entertaining movies about magicians that you probably haven’t seen.
Eternally Yours (1939)
Anita is engaged and in love, but all of that changes when she meets a popular stage magician named Arturo. The two are quickly married, and she joins his show as they travel the world, but the big smiles she puts on for the crowds is hiding a growing concern behind the scenes. She’s concerned about his safety as he finds himself involved in some dangerous tricks, but worse, she worries he might be unfaithful.
David Niven can do charming in his sleep, and Loretta Young exudes warmth, and together they deliver a compelling romance of sorts. She’s wooed into his life but quickly grows leery of that life on the road, so she leaves him – which in turn triggers a years long effort on his part to get her back. Does he deserve her? That’s arguable, but the journey between them offers some delight and fun all the same.
The film’s billed as a dramatic comedy, and while neither half hits particularly hard or heavy the result is still a sweet little tale about love at first sight – something magical in its own right – that takes a hit when real-world concerns start to play a role. Arturo’s career as a magician takes a hit too as his illusions and trickery falter. Without Anita in his heart, it seems his heart isn’t quite in anything at all. Toss in some parachute stunts and fisticuffs with Broderick Crawford, and you have some charming entertainment.
Eternally Yours is currently available on DVD and to stream.
The Mad Magician (1954)
Don is a showman at heart, but he works behind the scenes inventing and designing illusions and tricks for stage magicians to use in their acts. He finally decides to pursue his dream to become a performer, but when his efforts are stymied by those around him he shifts gears and starts using his “magic” to dispatch those who’ve wronged him.
This horror/comedy doesn’t get the love it deserves as it gives viewers a character to root for after seeing him wronged only to then leave audiences wondering if maybe they shouldn’t have backed a mad man. The film gives time to the relationship drama as Don loses everything and everyone before shifting gears into a murder-a-thon involving some cruelly designed and executed deaths for those he deems deserving. It’s pretty grim for the mid 50s, but hey, sometimes you need to make yourself feel better by any means necessary.
The film is pretty standard in some ways, but it’s elevated into must-watch territory through the lead performance of Vincent Price. The man is never less than captivating even in small roles, and in leads he’s something to behold whether he’s playing things seriously or going a bit more flamboyant. He walks the line here but keeps his character mostly in check lending an air of empathy to his frustrations and growing madness. Watch this one, and then pair it with 1973’s Theater of Blood to see Price take a similar character in far more over the top directions.
The Mad Magician is currently available on Blu-ray/DVD.
Two on a Guillotine (1965)
Two decades after being sent away by her father, a renowned magician, word of his death brings young Cassie back home to Los Angeles. His will dictates that his home and estate are now hers, but there’s a catch – she has to spend seven nights alone inside the house.
Like The Mad Magician above, this mid 60s chiller blends comedy with its thrills, but while the former goes blackly comic this entry is having far more fun. There’s mystery alongside the jump scares, and it becomes something of a template for Scooby Doo in some ways as sketchy personalities with greed in their eyes make their appearances leading to some third act reveals and playful shenanigans.
Part of its charm comes in the casting as Connie Stevens plays Cassie with both a bubbly effervescence and a smart awareness. She’s no pushover, and while she still screams like a cliched woman in a horror movie she’s also just brave and inquisitive enough. Dean Jones plays her deceptive love interest, and he’s equally at home with the light antics, and the great Cesar Romero stars as the legendary and definitely dead master magician. It may be ultimately forgettable entertainment, but it’s still a fun watch.
Two on a Guillotine is currently available on Blu-ray/DVD and to stream.
The Escape Artist (1982)
Young Danny Masters is a teenage magician and escape artist hoping to someday be as good as his legendary and late father, Harry, who was gunned down by police after escaping a jail cell. He convinces the local police and the press that he can escape the very same jail, but he has more up his sleeve than they’re expecting.
Movies about magic are typically quite showy, and it’s by design as the presentation goes hand in hand with the craft itself. This little film from the early 80s eschews the glitz – no doubt part of the reason it immediately disappeared from the public consciousness upon release – and instead focuses on the more human aspects of Danny’s journey. We still get plenty of his up close magic, and his big escape from the jail cell is a terrifically suspenseful watch, but rather than end with a bang the film finds comfort and solace in the teen coming to terms with his father’s legacy.
The film boats an impressive talent roster from producer Francis Ford Coppola to director Caleb Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey, this was his feature directorial debut after a successful cinematographer career), and the cast is equally eclectic. Young Griffin O’Neal stars as Danny, and he’s joined by Raul Julia, Desi Arnaz, Teri, Garr, M. Emmet Walsh, Jackie Coogan, Gary Marshall, and the late, great Harry Anderson as Danny’s father. It’s a sweet film that warms your heart just a little bit, and sometimes that’s magic enough.
The Escape Artist is available on DVD and to stream.
Magic is all Iskender knows, so despite not being all that good at it he decides to head out on tour. The situation aligns that he’s also forced to bring his senile father along for the trip, and while that results in its ups and downs it’s nothing compared to the trouble that arises when he makes a new bride disappear on stage and fails to make her reappear.
This Turkish comedy leans mostly towards finding humor in its characters and situations, but it’s not against the occasional dip into some fairly broad laughs. Iskender’s magic consists of the usual trickery, but the film allows a couple instances where something truly magical occurs–- it’s never explained away and instead is allowed to exist alongside the more traditional narrative beats. It works, though, and brings an extra layer of levity and wonder to their journey.
Cem Yilmaz stars as Iskender, and he also wrote and co-directed (along with Ali Taner Baltaci) the film which found success and acclaim in his home country. Turkey even shortlisted the film for their Oscar submissions that year, and while it hasn’t broken out elsewhere it’s a film with universal themes and laughs that never quite adhere to the expected conventions. Think road trip movie like Little Miss Sunshine (2006), but you know, in Turkish and without a kid and about magic instead of a beauty pageant.
Hokkabaz is currently available on DVD and to stream.
An Honest Liar (2014)
James Randi, often referred to as The Amazing Randi, fell in love with magic as a child and grew into a renowned magician and escape artist. As his skills increased he also discovered a distaste for those who used similar tricks to fool people out of their life savings and common sense. Randi dedicates his life to exposing these frauds and liars, but he does it all while hiding a lie or two of his own.
Okay, fine, this documentary did receive a special mention on Sciretta’s list, but it wasn’t an official entry so it still counts. The film makes for a solidly entertaining and enlightening double feature with another doc, Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (2012), as both films pair fascinating details about the magic itself with personal stories that touch the human heart. The film explores his efforts to fight frauds with some trickery of his own, and it’s a fascinating journey.
Randi’s personal life also finds its way into the story, and it’s there where his own lies and deceptions come to light in extraordinarily touching ways. The result is something special in how it engages through Randi’s fight against charlatans and the observation that many people simply want to believe the lies, but it shines in its observation of him beyond that fight. He’s a man devoted to science, but his greatest truth comes out in ways that are purely and spectacularly human.
An Honest Liar is currently available on DVD and to stream.
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