Friday, September 14, 2012

164. THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954)

Scripted by Crane Wilbur in his fourth decade as a screenwriter, THE MAD MAGICIAN adds to a pulp sensibility that extends as far back as Wilbur's script for the Lon Chaney silent THE MONSTER (1925) while capitalizing on his then-recent success HOUSE OF WAX (1953), also starring Vincent Price and also shot in 3D. In this case, Columbia opted to shoot in black-and-white and to assign director John Brahm, the auteur behind the late Laird Cregar's main masterpieces of menace, THE LODGER (1944) and HANGOVER SQUARE (1945).

One gets the sense that Wilbur's story, while conceptually solid -- Gallico the Great (Price), an accomplished designer of magic tricks, is prevented from becoming a stage magician in his own right due to contracts with businessmen and other miscellaneous blackmailers -- wasn't fully fleshed-out, because the film is not only padded with another appearance from Mr. Paddleball but shows the supplemental conceptual input of Brahm with its Victorian rooming house setting and a gratuitous, somewhat half-hearted restaging of the bonfire sequence from HANGOVER SQUARE. The subplot of the police investigation, the pretty assistant (Mary Murphy) whose detective boyfriend (Patrick O'Neal, who would go on to become a sort of ersatz Vincent Price in CHAMBER OF HORRORS) cracks the case... all this is recycled from HOUSE OF WAX, and goes back even farther to the writings of Edgar Wallace. For all that, the film retains its hold thanks to Vincent Price's then-still-fresh and vigorously vicious brand of villainy, which here is dealt the added allure of magic and disguise, with Price donning some ahead-of-their-time latex masks (designed by Gordon Bau) worthy of Fantômas himself. John Emery is wonderful as Gallico's malevolent rival the Great Rinaldi, and Eva Gabor plays the ambitious wife Gallico lost to his well-moneyed clutches.

The film works best with young viewers, as an adult sensibility can see how much of this was conveniently tossed together; I loved this as a kid, and some of that love carries over to now. I'm certainly indebted to it for being the first movie in my experience to warn me about dealing with ungenerous and unscrupulous businesspeople. One of the beloved parts of the picture involves the heroine unwittingly picking up the wrong package, which, unbeknownst to her, contains a severed human head, and Gallico's (Price's) desperate attempts to retrieve it... at first from her, then from a cab, and then from the police department. Seeing it again, I was disappointed to find the sequence not only not as suspenseful as I remembered, but in that it culminates offscreen and is recounted in dialogue as being without incident, also an enormous cheat. For all that, the buzzsaw and crematorium scenes are not to be missed.

Viewed (in two dimensions) on Sony HD.

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorites! I still need to get this on DVD!!