Magic by the Numbers
By Ed Garea
Houdini (Lionsgate Television, 2014) - Director: Uli Edel. Writer: Nicholas Meyer. Cast: Adrien Brody, Kristen Connolly, Evan Jones, Tom Benedict Knight, Eszter Onodi, & Louis Mertens.
Harry Houdini is famed as being the world’s greatest escape artist, but there was one thing he couldn’t escape: the leaden script for this two-part miniseries on the History Channel.
To say that Houdini led an amazing life is an understatement. Born Erik Weicz in Budapest, he moved with his family to America at the age of four. He began his magic career in Brooklyn at the age of 17, as Harry Houdini, in honor of his favorite magician and idol, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. He teamed with brother Dash until meeting fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner, whom he married in 1894. She replaced Dash in the act, acting as Houdini’s stage assistant for the rest of his life.
His magic act was built around his renowned abilities as an escape artist. When other performers began imitating him, Houdini upped the ante by expanding on his abilities to escape from almost any predicament: locked, water-filled milk cans, nailed packing crates, riveted boilers, locked mailbags, and in one case the belly of a beached whale in Boston.
He made films detailing his exploits and developed an interest in aviation. In the 1920s, Houdini turned his talents to exposing and debunking spiritualists, psychics, and mediums, demonstrating to the public how their acts were performed. As his debunking fame grew, Houdini took to wearing disguises when attending these sessions. His death from peritonitis resulting from a ruptured appendix was at first linked with Houdini taking a punch in the stomach before he could prepare. (As part of his act, Houdini advertised himself as the man with the strongest stomach, and would allow spectators to come forward to try their luck.). But soon rumors spread that jealous spiritualists poisoned him.
A most interesting life; too bad we get very little of it in the mini-series. Instead, director Edel and writer Meyer turn the famed magician into a mommy-obsessed performer driven by forces they never bother to take the time to explain. (Meyer based his screenplay on a novel titled Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait, by Bernard C. Meyer, who just happens to be the writer’s father. Nicholas Mayer also authored a novel titled The Seven Per-Cent Solution, wherein Sherlock Holmes goes to see Sigmund Freud for help.) Instead, what we get is a series of vignettes and locations with narration clumsily inserted to fill the voids. It’s even suggested that the young Houdini (Mertens) became intrigued with magic so he could bring home money for Mother (Onodi).
If he was over-attentive to Mommy, he was under-attentive to his wife, who at one point in the movie takes to self-medicating herself with marijuana, telling her husband that it’s Mexican tobacco. However, that’s as deep as it goes in this portrait. It’s why she becomes alienated and how she expresses it to her husband that’s of interest, but we never find out. Narration, and clichés dominate instead.
Every time something momentous is about to happen or Houdini receives terrible news, we cut to a special effects look of Houdini’s stomach and sinews taking a punch as the narration spews out such tiresome clichés as, “Some things hit you in the gut worse than any punch.” “Why was I so compelled to beat death? What was I trying to escape?” And the clichés abound, contained in the increasingly annoying narration. Just what psychological forces were compelling Houdini to keep pushing himself with increasingly dangerous tricks?
Another interesting point in the film comes with Houdini’s tour of Europe. Beforehand, he is approached by a government bigwig and asked to spy on Kaiser Wilhelm for the good of the free world. In addition, he will meet and team with a man from MI5. With each country he visits, Houdini comes away with oh-so useful information to be passed on, with the capper coming on his return to London where, during a performance, he slips away to break into the German Embassy’s safe and steal secret plans. And just in case we don’t get it, the narration will drive the point home for us. We need not think or speculate - it’s all there for us. All we have to do is watch.
But is it true? Any of it? We don’t know. It’s been speculated that Houdini did some work for the Allies while in Europe, and it does make a fun story. Unfortunately, the director and writer try to make it into some sort of James Bond adventure; so secret that Houdini couldn’t even tell his wife where he went when he left for long periods of time, leading her to think he was seeing another woman.
Part 2 of the mini-series is devoted to Houdini’s debunking of spiritualists. Again, we are led to believe that the impetus for this comes with his mother’s death. Harry, distraught, wants to contact her after death and seeks out several mediums, but his magician’s training leads him to conclude that the so-called mediums are nothing more than charlatans who use ordinary tricks to deceive grieving people sincerely seeking help. Among those caught in his crosshairs is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, who fancied herself a medium who used “automatic writing” to convey messages from the deceased. Houdini exposes her when he tells her afterward that while the messages were in English, she spoke only Yiddish. Also, the encounter took place on his birthday, and a mother would always wish her beloved son a happy birthday. Again, as to whether or not this actually happened, we are in the dark, but one thing we are not short of is the ponderous narration to drive each point home.
Even the punch that led to Houdini’s death is seen to be a deliberate act, taken before he was prepared; perhaps sent by the spiritualists to gain revenge? (One he exposed earlier threatened him with retribution.) As he lays dying in the hospital, Houdini tells his doctor that he’s been nothing but a fake, to which the doc replies that it simply isn’t the case, for he has brought joy and thrills to the multitudes that paid to see him perform. As the series closes we see his widow attending a séance. Perhaps she believes after all? What we are not told is that, after her husband’s death, she continued to expose spiritualists who told her they could contact her husband in the beyond. It seems that she and Houdini agreed upon a message he was to send her from the afterlife, and if that message wasn’t mentioned, the medium was a fake. Again, it’s what we’re not told that makes the difference between a good biopic and cliché-ridden melodrama.
As to the performances, Brody is masterful as Houdini, capturing his drive and inner conflicts. Connolly as Bess is nice to look at, but she’s given little to do, other than appear in a succession of reaction shots. There is also zero chemistry between Brody and Connolly. It comes back to the writing. Instead of meaningful conversation, we get nothing but cliché after cliché, such as when she tells him that he’s putting her into a box. Come on, who talks like that outside of bad movies? And on their wedding night, Houdini asks his new bride to step into a trunk. When she fits, he knows that she can replace his brother.
Jones, who plays Jim Collins, is also an empty suit. It is when Houdini meets Collins in Part 1 of the series that his career begins to take off, for Collins is the man that builds the apparatus Houdini uses to pull off his illusions. He gives us the feeling that worming for Houdini is a really fun way to spend one’s time, but other than that, there’s nothing to do. And I wanted to see more of Knight as Dash Houdini. There’s a lot of material about being Houdini’s brother, especially in regards to their relationship with their mother.
Not that the three-and-a-half series is all a drag. There are some very entertaining segments where Houdini explains his tricks. Watching it is like watching that series Breaking the Magician’s Code. And the scene where Houdini, visiting the Tsar and his family, astound everyone, including Rasputin, by making the Kremlin bells ring when they haven’t rung for years owing to the poor condition of the tower. Now that was a trick.
The trouble is that, between the tricks, there isn’t enough good drama to sustain the momentum. And here’s the kicker: there is clearly enough in Houdini’s life to sustain the momentum. If only it were written better. Oh well, at least it was more factual than the 1953 movie with Tony Curtis as Houdini. But what that film lacked in facts, it more than made up in cheesy charm. The miniseries should be so fortunate.
Houdini premiered on The History Channel, running on September 1 and 2. Expect History Channel to repeat the series later during the month and beyond.