Houdini (1953)

HOUDINI (1953)
Article #122 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing date: 7-16-2001
Posting date: 11-29-2001

The life and loves of the famous magician and escape artist.

In coping with Hollywood biopics and other films based on true stories, I make it a policy never to assume that the movie will accurately reflect what really happened; a good, carefully researched book on that particular subject would prove more useful in that regard. This gives me the opportunity to enjoy the movie for what it is, rather than placing expectations on it that it can’t possibly meet. Therefore, I won’t fool myself into thinking that I know the real Houdini after having seen this movie; what I have seen is what Hollywood thinks I would like to see about the life of Houdini. In this case, it thinks I would be most interested in seeing the trials and tribulations of Houdini’s love life. Not only is this aspect of Houdini’s life the one that find least interesting, but I feel I can safely say that the cute Hollywood-type events that surround this relationship in the movie have little bearing on what really happened.

Then there is the question of how this movie fits into the world of fantastic cinema; I will readily admit that it is one of the more marginal movies I’ve covered in this series. When setting up my viewing list, I decided to make no attempts to predetermine whether a movie qualifies for the category or not; I’ll watch it and decide afterwards. There are three points of interest for fans of fantastic cinema. One is that magicians by their very nature have a certain appeal for fans of the fantastic. Second is that Houdini himself appeared in several silent films that could qualify for the category. The third reason is the most interesting; there is a certain idea that pops up in the story after Houdini’s escape from a supposedly escape-proof strait-jacket; he doesn’t know how he escaped, and thinks he may have performed the feat through mystical means. He spends part of the movie looking for a magician who has experienced the same phenomenon. I don’t know if this was a real issue in Houdini’s life or not (though the fact that he had a penchant for exposing charlatan mystics calls it into question), but it does give this movie some of its most interesting touches, irrespective of whether I believe it or not.

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