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MAGIC (1978)

"It’s a little something anyone ought to be able to do. Now, if you can do it, fine, we’ll forget this whole thing; but if you can’t, we’ll think about getting you to see someone fast. Is it a deal?"
"Name it!"
"Make Fats shut up for five minutes."


Director: Richard Attenborough

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter, David Ogden Stiers, E.J. Andre

Screenplay: William Goldman, based upon his novel

Synopsis: An aspiring magician, Corky Withers (Anthony Hopkins), tells his mentor, Merlin (E.J. Andre), about his debut, pretending it was a success when it fact it was a disaster that ended with Corky abusing his indifferent audience. Merlin is not fooled, and tells Corky that he will never be a success until he learns how to charm people. A year later, agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) invites NBC executive George Todson (David Ogden Stiers) to the Stardust Club to see his latest discovery. Todson is disgusted when he finds out Corky is a magician, and even less impressed when he sees the beginning of his act. Things change, however, when the drunk heckling Corky from the back of the room turns out to be a ventriloquist’s dummy, nicknamed Fats. Corky brings Fats up onto the stage and the two go into their act, Corky performing magic and Fats keeping up a line of obscene chatter. Todson is impressed, and agrees to get Corky some television spots. Backstage, Ben lays out his plans for the future of the act, telling Corky he’ll know he’s made it when Ben buys him lunch at the Four Seasons. In time, the lunch happens. Ben breaks the news that NBC has offered Corky a pilot special. Corky is thrilled at first, but becomes apprehensive when he learns that taking a medical will be one of his contractual conditions. He asks Ben to get him out of it, but after consulting his lawyers, Ben tells Corky it cannot be done. In a panic, Corky flees New York, returning to his home town in the Catskills and renting a cabin by a lake. After the owner has shown him around, Corky takes Fats out of a suitcase. The two hold a "conversation", with Corky commenting wistfully that the woman didn’t remember him. Meanwhile, up at the house, Peggy (Ann-Margret) is looking through her high school yearbook, sad that Corky didn’t remember her…. Her ruminations are interrupted when Corky comes to the house. Peggy is thrilled to find that he did know her, and still more so when she sees he has Fats with him. Corky allows Peggy to manipulate the dummy, which delights her, as does Fats’ wisecracking. Peggy invites Corky for dinner. Afterwards, Corky explains that he is in hiding from his agent, although he claims it was fear of success that made him run away; while Peggy tells Corky about her lack of success in running the resort, and her unhappy marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Duke (Ed Lauter). Corky confesses that he had a desperate crush on Peggy all through high school. Later, Corky tells Fats they won’t be leaving the resort for several days. The next day, Corky shows Peggy some of his magic, then tells her that his mentor, Merlin, claimed that he could read his wife’s mind during a particular card trick. The two of them try it themselves. The first attempt is a failure, but Corky insists on trying it again, and the second time correctly divines which card Peggy holds. Excited by their success, the two kiss. Later on, they end up in bed together. The following morning, Corky asks Peggy to run away with him. While she is considering it, Corky returns to the cabin, where a conversation with Fats becomes a violent argument, the dummy spewing obscenities about Peggy. The scene is interrupted by the arrival of Ben, who tells Corky he now understands why he didn’t want to take the medical. Corky tries to convince Ben that what he saw was a merely a rehearsal, but the agent brushes this aside and makes Corky an offer: that the two of them will forget the entire incident if Corky can keep Fats quiet for five minutes….

Comments: Ventriloquists’ dummies are always creepy, just like clowns are always scary (and I sincerely hope no-one’s going to try to give me an argument on that point); so you’d think a film built on the premise of a dummy taking over its owner and becoming the dominant half of the partnership would be halfway home in the horror stakes. So what went wrong with Magic? I guess the short answer would be the character of Corky. If memory serves, the novel upon which the film was based told its story mostly from Fats’ point of view. From this twisted perspective, Corky remained to an extent an unknown quantity, creating uncertainty in the reader’s mind as to where exactly the danger lay, and thus generating a reasonable amount of suspense. In adapting his novel for the screen, however, William Goldman was obliged to abandon this narrative device, and the viewer is consequently forced, unshielded, into the company of Corky – which is not a good thing. Perhaps the cruelest moment in the film comes when Corky’s mentor tells him that he will never be a success until he learns to "charm people". If you were to make a list of words which could not, under any circumstances, be applied to Corky Withers, "charming" would probably be somewhere near the top of it. When Corky tells Merlin helplessly that he cannot do what he says, the audience can only nod its agreement. And in fact, this comes very close to the heart of the real problem with Magic: the question of why the audience should be interested in, let alone care about, anyone as consumed by self-loathing as Corky.

This is not to say that Anthony Hopkins’ performance isn’t a good one. On the contrary, if anything it’s too good. His Corky is so believable, so sweatily, unattractively real, that in a sense it damages the film. The fact of the matter is that the "hidden" side of Corky revealed through Fats isn’t all that much more unlikable than the side he shows in public. As a result, we really don’t want to hang out with this guy. This might have been less of an issue if the film’s plot was more interesting than it is; if it had chosen to follow Corky’s descent into madness, or if something had happened within the confines of the story to cause his insanity; but instead, we are simply presented with the fact that Corky is nuts, and that’s that. We don’t even understand why Corky is the way he is. All we know of his past life is that he was a solitary child, and that in high school he never worked up enough nerve to approach the cheerleader he had a crush on. As an adult, he’s shy and socially inept. So what? An awful lot of us lead lives that might more or less fit that description, but that doesn't mean we’re homicidal nutcases with split personalities. (Doesn’t necessarily mean, I guess that should be….) There isn’t even any ambiguity about whether what we’re seeing is real (i.e. Corky’s nuts) or supernatural (i.e. Corky’s possessed). Consequently, the film really has nowhere to go. The only point left in doubt is who will find out about Corky’s state of mind, and the price they will pay for it; and this simply isn’t a sufficiently compelling issue. This vacuum at the heart of the film leaves Magic’s other major flaw all too thoroughly exposed: the utter lack of credibility in the story of Corky’s career. When we first see Corky, he’s doing fairly simple magic tricks and getting no response. The next time we see him, he’s doing the same tricks while Fats tells dirty jokes, and being received with rapturous applause and the admiration of TV executives. Personally, I find this a tad difficult to believe. Still less do I believe (low as my opinion of network television is) that the act we see could be a smash hit in Vegas, on the Johnny Carson Show, in a pilot special, or anywhere else for that matter. (I even, sceptic that I am, find it rather unlikely that a foul-mouthed dummy could make reference to "the jugs on that broad" and have the woman thus described giggle and blush delightedly in response.) In short, Magic’s whole plot is based upon a more than usually embarrassing Informed Attribute. Things go from bad to worse when Corky uses his abilities to seduce Peggy. Watching poor Ann-Margret react with wide-eyed astonishment and excitement to the kind of sleight of hand that wouldn’t fool a toddler is a genuinely painful experience.

The contrivance of the medical examination is Magic’s final major groaner. Now, I don’t know whether television networks really do insist on people taking a physical before they sign a contract, but I’m pretty sure that even if they do it doesn’t include a psychiatric examination. I mean, crikey! – just look at some of the loonies that have graced our TV screens over the decades! If they passed the "medical", there’s no reason Corky couldn’t – particularly seeing that at this stage of the story he is still capable of functioning without Fats, and that even for some time afterwards he can keep the dummy in a suitcase for hours, or leave it behind while he dallies with Peggy. Still, I guess we’ve already established that logic isn’t this film’s strong point. Once the story moves to the Catskills, it becomes even more predictable. This includes the arrival of Ben, who inevitably witnesses Corky "fighting" with Fats, and even more inevitably, announces that (a) he’s knows Corky is nuts; and (b) he’s going to call a psychiatrist. (And then (c) has the gall to look surprised when he gets his head caved in.) In addition to this venerable chestnut, there’s a gratuitous (and fairly icky) sex scene; a bit of violence; and lots and lots of the two sides of Corky’s personality yelling at each other. (There’s also a "dead person comes back to life" scene that makes me think I was a little bit hard on I Know What You Did Last Summer.) This section of the film is very poorly paced, with nearly every scene dragging on for longer than it really needs to. I suspect that this may be the result of Magic being directed by Richard Attenborough – and by that I’m not saying that Attenborough is a bad director. The problem is, he’s a "serious" one; and in my experience, when "serious" directors condescend to dabble in the horror genre, they’re rarely content with just frightening their audience. Instead, they want to make something "significant". I think the over-deliberate pacing of Magic may be part of Attenborough’s attempt to make his subject matter seem profound. Unfortunately, the outcome is merely plodding.

That said, there are a few effective sequences: Ben’s challenge to Corky (we know he’s going to crack, we just don’t know when); the murder-by-dummy; the "caught fishing-line" scene, which manages a twist; and perhaps most of all, the ugly episode when Fats reveals to Peggy that Corky’s mind-reading abilities are nothing more than just another trick. (This scene is particularly interesting inasmuch as it is the one ambiguous moment in the whole film – we don’t actually know if Fats is telling the truth or not.) The location scenes in the Catskills are attractive in an appropriately gloomy way, and I found something else to enjoy that almost seems to be there against the film’s will: the characters created by Ed Lauter and Ann-Margret. At first, Lauter’s Duke seems no more than the stereotypical Abusive Husband, there to make us side with the adulterers. But Lauter manages to shade his character in a way that opens up a range of other possibilities, first by unexpectedly following his attempt to get Corky to confess his affair with Peggy with an almost involuntary confession of his need of her and his gratitude for her sticking by him, then by reacting to the discovery of Ben’s body with admirable intelligence and swiftness. Suddenly, this man is not just a two-dimensional plot device. In the end, though, it is Ann-Margret’s performance that lingers in the mind: as the faded beauty crushed by the combined weight of an unhappy marriage and a dying business, she is both touching and real. The dreariness of her world is conveyed as much through the look in her eyes and the helpless droop of her shoulders as it is by what she tells Corky. So emotionally vulnerable is Peggy that she is the one character in this whole sorry mess that we really don’t want to see hurt. After all, how can you not feel sorry for a woman with an existence so miserable that it makes life with Corky Withers seem like an attractive proposition? In fact, if that doesn’t absolutely define "quiet desperation", I don’t know what does.