Harry Houdunnit


Fiona is on a Houdini kick, so she compelled me to watch the History Channel’s biopic, starring Adrien Brody (authentically Hungarian) as the Great Man.

Scripted by Nicholas Meyer (TIME AFTER TIME) with numerous fictional flourishes (Rasputin? the bullet trick?) and a tacked on voice-over which works hard to ruin everything, along with an irksome, pumped-up music score, the show is nevertheless diverting, since the facts of Houdini’s existence are remarkable enough and Meyer includes plenty of them. Brody is good, even if he is spectacularly elongated where HH was spectacularly compact. Director Ulli Edel (LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN) throws all he’s got at it, and some of it sticks, but stricter organisation of shots would have helped. It’s more like an exciting compendium of effects than a job of organisation.

The real revelation is that Houdini soars whenever it documents the magic act, even when making stuff up. And most of the tricks are followed by explanations, where available (only the vanishing elephant is left as a tantalizing mystery, and indeed the trick as presented onscreen looks quite impossible). It’s the rather clumsy attempts to provide psychological explanations for Houdini’s actions and career and life which drag the two-parter down to earth like multiple balls and chains. So I propose a new approach for the next biopic — try focussing on the career, the reason we’ve heard of the character in the first place, and skip over everything else — leave the motivation as mysterious as the dematerialised pachyderm. If your character is a showman like Houdini, there will still be plenty of drama…


11 Responses to “Harry Houdunnit”

  1. Kevin Mummery Says:

    I had such high hopes for “Houdini”, and I’ve liked many things Adrien Brody has done (Brothers Bloom, particularly) but this one just missed the mark. And is it a requirement that anyone playing Houdini must have Hungarian blood? Tony Curtis did. Lugosi was too old (but did play Chandu, so at least there’s that) Much less psychological exploration, much more career focus…why don’t you make the next Houdini biopic, David? It would be so much better than this one was.

  2. What I would REALLY like to see is a worthy film of Carter Beats the Devil.

    The other thing you could do with Houdini is full-blown fantasy, which there’s a bit of here, but they could have gone much further with it. Houdini as spy calls out for some crazy League of Extraordinary Gentlemen nonsense (like my proposed French resistance comic book starring Samuel Beckett, Josephine Baker, Albert Camus and Edith Piaf).

    Meyer was adapting a book by his father, who wrote psychological studies of various celebrities, but that aspect of the thing mainly infects the sloppy VO.

    Harvey Keitel seems the best physical match for HH to have taken the role, though his parentage is Romanian & Polish, not Hungarian.

  3. Kevin Mummery Says:

    I like both of those ideas…Rudy Rucker wrote a short story called “Houdini” years ago, and it’s somewhat similar to your full-blown fantasy concept.

  4. Re: your proposed French resistance comic book…

    That sounds like a fantastic idea. P.S. Would Samuel Beckett, Josephine Baker et al have superpowers?

  5. F here – JB would have the ability to warp the space-time continuuum wirh super fast hip gyrations. SB would tell a few jokes.

  6. Pet Peeve: Films about magicians that have them doing impossible illusions via editing or trick photography. An impromptu levitation in a living room, for example. If you’re going to have a wizard, fine. But a stage magician should be made possible.

    The Tony Curtis movie “Houdini” was an offender — even though it took pains to present some tricks plausibly.

    Back in the 80s Disney did a television thing called “Young Houdini”, which had the teen magician touring with a medicine show and learning genuine mystic powers from an old Indian chief. He turned them on a gang of outlaws; then a twist suggested it was all a dream. A framing story had him recounting this to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — never mind that Houdini and Doyle were at odds over the latter’s belief in the supernatural. As a closing gag, Houdini casually does one of the chief’s not-a-mere- tricks.

    A movie serial of “Mandrake the Magician” managed to go to the other extreme, having the presumed master magician wowing audiences with tricks kids would buy at a novelty shop — and in some scenes, his head would be cropped off or wearing a mask to facilitate a double for even that.

  7. Filmmakers seem almost compelled to stage trick that couldn’t be done on stage, in the same way Busby Berkeley staged musical numbers that would ever fit behind a proscenium and which depended for their effects on camera placement.

    I’ll make an exception for the film of Welles sawing Dietrich in half, which is dleightful.

    Sam Beckett — Absurdo, who has the power to cloud men’s minds! Also, time travel.
    Edie Piaf — The Bird! Can shake bridges to bits with her vibrato.
    Bert Camus — Existo, kills without emotion, and can make things not exist.
    Jo Baker — The Black Pearl, defeating Nazis with her nudity and trick bananas.

  8. Now I’m compelled to bring up a semi-joking, but I think quite clever, idea for a Houdini script that comes from Chad Fifer and Chris Lackey of the H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast. They pointed out that Houdini employed many women, most notably Rose Mackenberg, as confederates when investigating spiritualists and mediums, so they proposed a series focusing on these women called “Houdini’s Angels”. Hey, it could work.

  9. Or a sitcom, entitled Arch-debunker’s Place?

  10. F here – Houdini collaborated with Lovecraft on Imprisoned With The Pharaohs. All the stuff with Rose Mackenberg is great. Just finished The Secret Life Of Houdini: The Making Of America’s First Superhero. What jumped out at me as a possible film or series idea was the large number of members of The Society Of American Magicians, which Houdini would later lead, who were hired by the US government to work for them during World War 1 on such things as concealed and miniaturized weapons, cryptography, camouflage, and in Harry H’s case, underwater escapes and breaking out of prisons. Anyone got any ideas for a title?


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