Growing up in the Chicago area we had a program that aired on Sunday afternoons called Family Classics. The kindly host Frazier Thomas, who also was on Bozo’s Circus, would introduce the films sitting in a big chair in front of a fireplace. I’m pretty sure that I saw a portion of today’s movie on that show when I was a kid…and it terrified me. It’s not a scary movie, per se, but it is a biopic about a performer who definitely sought to scare his audience a bit. George Pal served as producer on 1953’s Houdini.
Tony Curtis stars as Harry Houdini, who we first meet as a struggling magician working in cheap carnival. One night he spots a lovely young woman in the audience named Bess (Janet Leigh) who he, of course, makes a participant in his act. Over the next few weeks he encounters Bess several more times and before we know it the two are married and performing as a team. Things aren’t going well for them financially, though. So, for a short time Harry goes to work at a company that makes safes. There he becomes intrigued by trying to escape from being locked inside one. Later, an escape from a straight jacket at a magician’s gathering opens the door for Harry to re-enter the world of magic, performing in Europe.
Harry soon becomes known for his escape stunts. He accepts challenges to escape from prisons and various sorts of restraints. This earns him worldwide fame. However, when his beloved mother dies he becomes obsessed with trying to find a medium who can contact her, and with exposing the con artists in the process. Eventually, though, he plans to make a triumphant return to performing by escaping from being locked upside down in a water torture chamber.
I don’t know tons about Harry Houdini, but I do know enough to know that this film is highly fictionalized. This is not uncommon for biopics, of course, but with such an intriguing subject matter you would think they could’ve stuck a bit closer to reality. Tony Curtis turns in a solid performance, though he seems a bit too handsome for Houdini. Have you ever seen a picture of the guy? He was kind of creepy looking, which probably worked to his advantage considering his act. I suppose the casting of Curtis, and Leigh too, is more than enough evidence that this film was going for a very glossy take on the legend that was Houdini. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that as the film was very entertaining. A bit darker and more mysterious interpretation, though, might have been more appropriate.
The sequences that depict Houdini’s various escapes were the most appealing aspect of the film for me. Through my work as a puppeteer, I have many friends and associates who are magicians. The art of performing illusions is something I am definitely intrigued by and this film delivers without giving away any of the secrets, which is as it should be. Specifically when it comes to Houdini, though, I would’ve liked to see a bit more about how he developed some of his tricks. Other than his escapes, many of the other tricks we see him do are pretty standard illusions. I needed to see a bit more about what made Houdini extraordinary. We don’t even get to see Houdini do one of his famous milk can escapes. Heck, Fonzie did that on an episode of Happy Days!
Now, remember I said that this film terrified me as a kid. There were two things about it that got to me. One was the scene where Houdini nearly dies trying to do an escape from a box dropped into the icy Detroit River. From what I understand, there are questions as to whether this incident actually ever happened, but showing a man trapped under the ice struggling to find the way out got under my skin as a kid. The other sequence that got to me was the ending which depicts Houdini performing the water torture escape. The end of the film is left somewhat fuzzy, leaving the audience to decide for themselves if Houdini lives or dies. He actually died of a ruptured appendix, which is slightly hinted at in the film. He’s shown doubling over as he gets ready for the show. This is probably what scared me as a kid because the idea of something inside your body which can burst and kill you has always freaked me out.
Though Houdini left me wanting in several areas, it’s still an entertaining film. Both Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh are good, if maybe a bit miscast. It’s probably important, though, to remember that the film weaves back and forth between fact and fiction. It’s a very shiny take on a very mysterious performer.
NOTE: Houdini was recently released on DVD and BluRay by Olive Films. We appreciate them letting us check out the film.