July 2, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Magic (1978)

by Nick Schager


[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the man-and-his-doll fantasy Ted.]

"We're gonna be a staaaaar!" crows Fats, the ventriloquist dummy controlled by Corky (Anthony Hopkins), toward the beginning of Magic, but stardom is something to be feared as much as coveted by the showman protagonist of Richard Attenborough's adaptation of William Goldman's novel (itself seemingly indebted to The Twilight Zone episode "The Dummy"). That hopeful exclamation is made while both Corky and Fats are spied in a mirror, a recurring visual trope that speaks to the mounting duality and insanity of its confidence-lacking main character, who after early struggles at amateur nights—where he responds to audience indifference with vitriolic rage—finds himself on the precipice of stardom upon taking to the stage with Fats. A big-eyed, sailor-capped wooden sidekick, Fats is the motormouthed Id to Corky's Ego, and his profane (at least by 1978 standards) brashness makes him an instant hit, as well as marks him as a potential breakout sensation to agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith), who believes that "magic is misdirection," and that Fats will be the key misdirection element that will allow Corky's act to transfer properly to TV. The only problem, alas, is that Corky, when offered an NBC pilot, won't take a medical exam, purportedly "on principle" but, in truth, because he fears what doctors might discover about his mental condition.


Attenborough depicts Corky's early nightclub failure through silent flashbacks intercut with Corky's more rosy-eyed retelling of the night to a friend, a sequence of subtle dreaminess that establishes the material's guiding disconnect between fantasy and reality. Fleeing Manhattan and the celebrity earned from Tonight Show appearances, Corky visits his upstate NY home to find only memories of childhood alienation and parental death, and thus moves on to the Catskills in search of Peggy (Ann-Margret), a beautiful former schoolmate running a lakeside resort with her roughneck real-estate agent husband Duke (Ed Lauter). With Duke initially away, Corky and Peggy strike up a romance that makes Fats jealous, and their relationship is solidified by a trick in which Corky appears to psychically guess Peggy's playing card. This supposed supernatural bond helps legitimize Peggy's dream that she might flee her husband for a life with Corky, and her inner struggles between fanciful desire and actual circumstances make her a fit for Corky, whose ventriloquist schizophrenia remains in relative check until Ben reappears to confront him about his state of mind by challenging him to go five minutes without speaking as Fats—a challenge that Corky fails, punctuated by Fats blaring out about his owner "You're crazy!"


Suffice it to say, that's an understatement, and by forcing Corky to confront his own lunacy, Ben is beaten mercilessly with Fats, and then dragged out into the middle of the lake to be drowned. That Corky has to further fight a not-quite-dead Ben out in the middle of the water is apt for the magician-turned-killer, who's such a head case that he can't even properly pull off an easy murder. Failure is the thing that most terrifies Corky, and with good reason, since on both a personal and professional level, he's a disaster tearing apart at the seams, despite the fact that he's managed—preposterously, it must be added—to successfully woo Peggy. Hopkins embodies Corky with an increasingly helter-skelter frenzy that's present even during quieter moments, dancing in his wide, wild eyes, and his performance is all the more compelling for its ability to marry Corky's madness to relatable anxieties and discontent, which are also shared by Duke, whose real estate career (like has marriage) has fallen apart and left him adrift. Manic without ever being melodramatically histrionic, Hopkins captures a chilling sense of being a prisoner to one's own conflicted impulses and angst, culminating with a sequence in which he, via Fats, becomes both puppet and puppetmaster.


The third-act appearance of Duke leads to love-triangle tensions that are rather pedestrian, and spiral the material into more rote thriller realms until the conclusion, in which Corky is forced to confront his at-odds longing for happily-ever-after escape (and salvation) with Peggy, and his insecure dependence on Fats for self-assurance. By this point having relied a tad too heavily on mirror reflections as well as overlapping and/or foreground-background compositions of Corky and Fats, Attenborough stages his climax with a patience that enhances suspense. And even when Goldman's script makes plain Corky's twisted neurosis via somewhat blunt Corky-Fats dialogue, their final conversation is legitimately poignant, and amplifies the general creepiness of Fats himself, a dummy whose giant head, clattering mouth and wiggling ears make him a memorable figure of displaced psychosis. Even more haunting still are Attenborough's playful suggestions that Fats might be not only a proxy for Corky's craziness, but also, perhaps, alive— an implication most chillingly made in a late shot that, lingering on Fats a second after Corky has risen from his side and walked away, catches the dummy's eyes moving with pitch-perfect horror-movie-eerie mischievousness.

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Posted by ahillis at July 2, 2012 12:54 PM