The Great Houdini (1976)
Article 5457 by Dave Sindelar
Directed by Melville Shavelson
Featuring Paul Michael Glaser, Sally Struthers, Ruth Gordon
What it is: Biopic
The life of escape artist Harry Houdini is told from the point of view of his wife and his nurse.
This isn’t the first movie I’ve seen that involves Houdini; I’ve also seen the 1953 biography as well as a handful of movies in which he appeared, most notably THE MASTER MYSTERY. Usually, biopics don’t fall within the scope of my project, but since we’re dealing with a man who dealt with magic and spiritualism, the story does involve fantastic content to some extent. In fact, this movie puts forth the belief that Houdini did indeed contact his wife from beyond the grave, and that makes this a far less marginal picture than it would be otherwise.
Now, I haven’t read any biographies on Houdini, so I’m no authority as to what happened in his life, so I can’t attest to how accurate the movie is. However, my overall impression was very mixed. Some of the characters feel like stereotypes, and there are scenes that feel a little too pat and artificial dramatically. However, there are some nice moments here and there, as well as a handful of interesting performances. I was especially delighted to see Peter Cushing playing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; according to IMDB, he shot his scenes a few days after finishing up his scenes in STAR WARS. There are lots of familiar names in the cast; other than those already listed, we have Adrienne Barbeau, Bill Bixby, Nina Foch, Wilfred Hyde-White and Maureen O’Sullivan. However, I think Vivian Vance nearly steals the movie as Houdini’s sassy nurse, but seeing how she’s given all the best lines in the movie, that’s understandable. I enjoyed the scenes involving magic and spiritualism the best, but I was bored with the subplot about his wife competing with his mother for the man’s affection. As I said, it’s a mixed bag, but when it’s good, it’s worth the watch.