Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Mad Magician (1954)

After having spent the last few years of his working life making props for other people's stage shows in the employment of the rather nasty Mister Ormond (Donald Randolph), Don Gallico (Vincent Price) is finally beginning to make his life's dream of a career as a stage magician come true. He's got a charming assistant in Karen Lee (Mary Murphy), a gimmick imitating famous other magicians built on his ability to make life-like masks, and a thrilling new trick called "The Lady and the Buzzsaw", so nothing can go wrong.

Unfortunately, Don isn't much of a businessman and doesn't realized that whatever he creates while still in the employ of Ormond - say a sensational new trick - belongs to Ormond. Ormond, being the nice chap he is, waits with telling this to Don until right before the saw is supposed to buzz.

After that fiasco, Don continues to work for Ormond until they get into an argument that goes into a few more of the very peculiar problems between the two men, like the fact that Ormond stole Don's wife (Eva Gabor) years ago and is now unhappily married to her. One might ask why Don is still working for the guy, but that would mean putting much more thought into the film than the people making it did.

Anyway, two men are having a row, there's a convenient buzzsaw nearby, so of course Don uses it to kill Ormond. And of course this won't be the magician's only murder. He does, after all, have a tendency to do rather silly things like lose Ormond's head, and walks around masked as the people he has killed, making himself much more problems this way as he would have if his victims just disappeared. Still, it takes the combined intellects of Karen, her cop boyfriend (Patrick O'Neal) and the mystery writer Mrs Prentiss (Lenita Lane) - into whose pension he has moved in in his Ormond disguise for no good reason at all - to catch Don.

If you have seen Vincent Price in 1953's much superior House of Wax, you can imagine what kind of thoughts must have led to the creation of The Mad Magician. These movies would of course be the inspirations for a long row of films about mild-mannered artiste types losing their minds and getting bloodthirsty to which beloved hero of the house Vincent Price lent his remarkable talents.

Alas, The Mad Magician is neither a House of Wax nor an Abominable Doctor Phibes. Old workhorse John Brahm's direction is just a bit too pedestrian, with nary a flourish of creativity on display. Brahm doesn't even attempt to built the Gothic mood of dread and doom the film would require to work, and instead goes for a style that probably could have worked for a script that was more of an actual mystery instead of the random conglomeration of nonsense the one for the film turns out to be.

Not much in that script makes any sense at all. Gallico's masquerading as his dead victims isn't even explained as an attempt to distract from their being dead, and most of the plotting and characterisation just come over as lazy (even in the context of a cheap early 50s horror film), quite as if writer Crane Wilbur had had to deliver three set pieces and didn't care at all about putting any thought into connecting them.

Given how shoddy and underdeveloped much of the writing feels, I still have to give Wilbur and Brahm credit for the amount of agency and competence the female characters - or at least Karen and Mrs. Prentiss, Claire being the usual femme fatale - are allowed to have. It is, after all, they who solve the murders and even safe cop boyfriend's life during the final punch-out, something that just wasn't done in US movies of the 50s. Men in the film are either morally corrupt, mad, or utterly ineffectual. I vaguely remember the gender roles in the also Wilbur-written The Bat (also with Price as the bad guy) to have been similar, which could make Wilbur's work as a director and writer something worthy of further exploration for me.

Then there is Vincent. Price is in his element in a role like this and does his typical ultra-nuanced over-acting, even if the script doesn't give him as much to work with here as one would wish for. He builds up his character's softer side as much as possible and makes him as sympathetic as he is able to, and then goes into his (few) mad outbreaks with true relish, like a kettle that finally blows. It is even a bit creepy (in a feel that decidedly lacks in creepiness in every other aspect) to watch how Gallico's confidence grows with every murder he commits, as if growing strength of character and growing moral abhorrence were intrinsically entwined in his case. That idea doesn't seem so much to be part of the script as something Price develops alone through his performance. It's quite a thing to watch.

Alas, to get at the core of Price's performance, the surprising female characters, or the handful of moments of acceptable silliness, one has to slog through many a pedestrian sequence. It was still worth it for me, but less patient viewer's mileage will vary.


No comments: