- Movie Rating -

Magic (1978)

| November 8, 1978

There must have been, I can imagine, a great temptation to turn a movie like Magic into a freak show, an exercise in exploitation that is free of restraint.  God forbid, perhaps even a movie that respects the intelligence of the audience.  This is, after all, the story of a ventriloquist being controlled by his dummy.

That plot description alone marks the film as exploitation, but if Magic proves anything, it is that any kind of story can rise from the doldrums of heady crap and become something involving.  That’s especially true since the movie fell into the capable hands of director Richard Attenborough (who spared no expense) and writer William Goldman, who crafted an effective and at times scary psychological thriller that is constantly side-stepping the urge to dip its toes into the supernatural.  Like Hitchcock, Attenborough plays with the audience’s expectations.

Anthony Hopkins plays Corky Withers, a name that is just as effective as a description as it is a moniker.  He’s a small-time magician working in small clubs in New York.  His act is solid but his stage presence is nearly non-existence.  He is proud of the fact that he has taught himself the “floating Ace trick” wherein he can make the Ace seemingly float out of a deck of cards.  The audience isn’t interested.  They are focused on their dates, their meals and setting the check.

Corky’s cigar-chomping agent, Ben Green (Burgess Meredith, channeling Irving “Swifty” Lazar) urges the shy young magician to find a new angle, and so he does so by adding a ventriloquism into the act.  It’s a hit.  His wooden doppleganger is named Fats who looks like Anthony Hopkins reimagined by the artists of Mad Magazine.

Anyway, Fats makes Corky a star and soon Corky is a huge success.  Unfortunately, something is nagging at him.  Apparently he can’t handle all of the success and he decides to skip The Big Apple and go back to his hometown in The Catskills.  He tells no one, and in no time he has hooked up with his old High School crush.

The crux of this matter is that Corky’s mental state is not only disturbing but also unchecked.  He is the meek side of his personality but he uses Fats as his conduit of assertiveness.  Soon he and the dummy are bonding, and that’s not a good thing.

The masterstroke with this movie is that Fats is never revealed as supernatural.  The movie grounds him in reality so we are always on our toes.  When he sits stationary, we know that he’s just a dummy but the dummy has been created in such a way that he really seems to have a personality all his own.  There are several shots here that are unsettling in that inanimate doll sort of way.

What is tricky about this plot is that we know where it is going, but our expectations are always on edge.  I swear, I had no idea how the movie was going to end and I could guess where the third act would take me.  This is a very tricky psychological thriller that works well because it stands its ground because it keeps to its own rules, and we are always with the story even when it seems to be slipping.

My only quibble is with the film’s closing scene.  Without giving too much away let’s just say that the last 30 seconds don’t make a lot of sense.  Thinking back on it, I can’t really decide what the movie was trying to say in those brief moment and, in truth, I don’t think the movie needed it.  But still, this is a solid thriller that gives you what you want.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1978) View IMDB Filed in: Horror, Thriller