As a puppeteer, I have many friends who are involved in other unique art forms. Ventriloquists, clowns, mimes, storytellers, and, of course, magicians. Over the years I have picked up a few, very easy, tricks. For the most part, though, much of what my magician friends do is still a mystery to me…which is as it should be. Today’s film takes us into the world of magicians, 1982’s “The Escape Artist.”
The film centers on a young teenage boy named Danny (Griffin O’Neal…son of Ryan) who comes from a family of magicians. He lives with his Aunt and Uncle (Joan Hackett and Gabriel Dell) who have a magic and mind reading act. They once worked with Danny’s father, Harry (Harry Anderson), who was a master escape artist…2nd only to Houdini. Unfortunately, Harry was killed attempting one of his famous escapes. Danny, himself very skilled in magic, dreams of following in his father’s footsteps.
One day, Danny visits a magic shop (run by Uncle Fester himself, Jackie Coogan) to try and get a job. While there, he encounters an annoying customer, Stu (Raul Julia), and his girlfriend (Teri Garr). Stu happens to be the mayor’s son, and is a professional bully of sorts. When his kidding results in a bloody nose for Danny, the boy takes the opportunity to lift Stu’s wallet. He also manages to handcuff Stu to the wall before slipping out.
Danny originally plans to simply dump the wallet in a mailbox, but he is surprised by the huge amount of $100 bills it contains…not to mention the driver’s license belonging to the mayor (Desi Arnaz…billed as Desiderio). He keeps the wallet and decides to treat himself to a meal at local diner. There he meets a young waitress named Sandra (Elizabeth Daily). He offers her a job as his magic assistant and arranges to meet her later.
Meanwhile, Stu and his lackey (John P Ryan), find Danny’s home and go to get the wallet back. You see, Stu somehow lifted the wallet from his father in the first place, and the mayor is desperate to get it back. But Danny continues to toy with them, slipping the wallet in and out of their pockets without them noticing. When a neighbor stops by, the two thugs have no choice but to leave without the wallet. Later that night, Danny meets with Sandra for their “date.” Rather than taking in a movie or something like that…he brings her back to his uncle’s garage where he nearly kills himself demonstrating his father’s water chamber escape.
Eventually, Danny comes to Stu asking for a job. After showing off his unique skills at picking locks, Stu decides to use Danny to cause more trouble for his corrupt father, the mayor. This leads to an opportunity for Danny to cracks some safes and even attempt an escape from prison.
“The Escape Artist” was produced by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios and was the first of only two films directed by Academy Award nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel…and yes, he’s Zoey’s father. The film does a very effective and respectful job presenting the art of magic. There have been many movies I have seen that present magic without doing any research. I see a trick and, even with my limited knowledge of the art, I can say, “yeah, it doesn’t work like that.” This film did it’s homework…as did Griffin O’Neal who shows a great deal of flair for the art of illusion.
Ultimately, though, the film is more about fathers and sons than the ability to do tricks or pick locks. Julia portrays Stu as an arrogant man-child, who’s out to destroy his father’s legacy simply because he can. Danny, on the other hand, seems to be driven to restore his father’s legacy by doing everything he was able to do and more. Both Julia and O’Neil’s performances are quite compelling.
As good as the two leads are, the supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at either. Strangely, one of the biggest names in the cast, Teri Garr, is severely underused. But just look who else is in this! Though his performance is brief, Jackie Coogan is perfectly cast as a nervous magic store owner. It was also fun spotting John P Ryan, who played the principal in “Three O’Clock High,” as Stu’s hapless henchman. The always reliable M. Emmet Walsh also has a wonderfully sinister moment as a prison warden, and you can even spot former Bowery Boy Huntz Hall as one of his guards. And, of course, who can resist the wonderful Elizabeth (or E.G.) Daily? Her character has a wonderful sweetness to her. Just what you’d expect from the girl who played Dottie in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” a few years later. If I have one major complaint about this movie, it’s that her character sadly disappears halfway through.
There were a few moments in “The Escape Artist” that didn’t quite work, and I did find the ending to be way too abrupt, but on a whole this is a thoroughly enjoyable film. It may even be…dare I say, magical.