Blog Directory CineVerse: Cinematic sleight of hand

Cinematic sleight of hand

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Magic, a psychological horror film directed by Richard Attenborough and adapted from William Goldman's novel of the same name, rolled into theaters roughly 45 years ago, in autumn 1978. Its famous ad campaign, including a TV spot featuring a tense close-up of a ventriloquist dummy, proved a terrifying tease of what to expect. The narrative revolves around Corky Withers, a failed magician portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, who achieves fame as a ventriloquist with the assistance of his profane wooden companion Fats. Nevertheless, as Corky's stardom grows and an affair blossoms with his high school crush, the eerie personality of Fats begins to erode Corky’s sanity.

Magic is renowned for its profound exploration of psychological horror, specifically the disquieting dynamic between the protagonist and his dummy. It delves into themes of fixation, insanity, and the elusive boundary between reality and illusion.

Click here for a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

The film captures our attention thanks to its emphasis on psychological horror rather than the conventional elements of slashers or the supernatural. It delves into the inner workings of the protagonist's mind as he descends into madness and the blurring of the line between reality and illusion, making for a distinctive and thought-provoking contribution to the horror genre.

Anthony Hopkins delivers a remarkably offbeat, quirky, and intense performance as Corky, and as Fats (yes, that’s Hopkins’ voice as the dummy), highlighting his versatility as an actor. After accepting the role, the actor carefully studied ventriloquism, and his commitment to this art clearly shows. Hopkins’ portrayal of an unhinged man seeking love and success wasn’t much appreciated when the film was released but has been reappraised in the decades since.

Director Richard Attenborough (also famous for being a notable actor in films like The Great Escape, Jurassic Park, and Miracle on 34th Street) shines as the guiding hand of Magic. Fittingly, considering the magician misdirection theme at work, he often uses clever camera angles and carefully composed shots to amplify suspense, throw the audience off guard, and create psychologically claustrophobic environments.

Recall the sequence where Ben asks Corky to refrain from talking to Fats for five minutes and the camera alternates queasily between Corky and Ben, often without showing Fats; or the scene when Corky asks Peggy to intensely concentrate on a card. critic Eric Miller wrote: “At first, it almost seems like a cute little game, and it is shot from a relatively high angle adding levity to the situation. However, when Corky fails in his attempt to discover Peggy’s card, he becomes very aggressive. The camera begins to film things from below, accenting both Corky’s anger and Peggy’s fear. Attenborough then mixes in some intense close-ups of Corky’s and Peggy’s eyes, making the scene intensely personal. When Corky finally divines Peggy’s card, the camera backs off, and returns to its elevated position. Using nothing but camera work, Attenborough poignantly illustrates that Corky is both very sweet and very dangerous, all the while leaving us on the edge of our seats.”

In fact, Fats’ location and presence or absence within any given shot as the story progresses proves increasingly important, causing the viewer to pay more attention to the dummy and look for him when he’s not there. The insinuation by the filmmakers is clear: Fats could be a supernatural character, in which case the audience needs to look for any clues or proof that he’s more than an inanimate wooden object.

It’s fairly clear by the movie’s conclusion that Fats has never come to life—Corky suffers from a severe split personality syndrome (today commonly referred to as dissociative identity disorder) and has himself committed all the violence we’ve seen. But Attenborough’s directorial choices coupled with Hopkins’ depiction of an extremely disturbed character make many of us doubt the plausible explanation, at least through much of the film’s runtime.

DVD Talk reviewer Stuart Galbraith wrote: “Since Fats is really all in Corky's mind, the dummy isn't supposed to move on its own, yet the skill of the filmmaking is such that audiences watching the film have their eyes glued on Fats, waiting for an eyelid to twitch, an arm to raise itself up.”

Thematically, Magic traffics in the classic trope of fantasy versus reality, exploring in Corky the dangers of blending between the real world and the world of illusion. His professional success relies on creating illusions and making audiences believe that magic is real, but the tragedy is that—unlike his audiences who can suspend their disbelief and temporarily believe the illusion—Corky is a true believer. He increasingly thinks Fats is real and in control when the truth is that Corky suffers from a deranged mental state.

Magic is also a cautionary tale of ambition and obsession. The story follows Corky on his path to becoming a famous ventriloquist and magician. He’s worked hard at his craft and chosen a schtick (a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy) that has catapulted him to the next level; he’s poised to make it big on television, too. But despite his drive to thrive, he fears being exposed as an unbalanced personality and refuses to submit to a health exam. The film's second half focuses on different forms of fixation: a desire to escape fame and scrutiny, a yearning to bond with Peggy Ann, and an obsession to hide his crimes and escape punishment.

Duality and dichotomy are front and center, too. Magic examines the two sides of Corky, with one side dominated by Fats, who represents his id-like inner thoughts, jealousies, anger, and negative emotions. The film artfully smudges the boundaries between these two personas, generating internal conflict and turmoil. The sometimes uncanny and unexplainable nature of reality is another juicy subtext, as Magic delves into ways and things that can cause us to question what is real and what isn’t. Fats the dummy embodies this uncanny quality, appearing at times to be more than a lifeless puppet. And Corky’s skills at ventriloquism and guessing cards can also feel a bit magical and mysterious.

Similar works

  • Other movies and TV programs featuring frightening ventriloquist dummies and eerie dolls, including Dead of Night, Dead Silence, Goosebumps, Devil Doll, The Twilight Zone episodes The Dummy, and Caesar and Me, and the Child’s Play and Annabelle films
  • Horror films about split personalities, including Psycho, Raising Cain, Secret Window, Black Swan, and Identity

Other films directed by Richard Attenborough

  • Gandhi
  • Chaplin
  • A Bridge Too Far
  • Shadowlands
  • Cry Freedom

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