Synopsis: Columbia Pictures’ last entry in the 1950s 3D craze, The Mad Magician (1954) stars Vincent Price in a trademark role as a round-the-bend illusionist bent on revenge. Delightfully tongue-in-cheek, the film also offers some genuinely frightfest-style moments, courtesy of director John Brahm (The Lodger, Hangover Square), one of Hollywood’s foremost stylists of the macabre.
The Mad Magician 7.25
eyelights: Vincent Price. its magic tricks.
eyesores: its conventional plot.
“Remember I told you how much Mr. Gallico reminded me of Ormond?”
Vincent Price is considered by many as a “Master of Horror”, but what few people know is that he was a much more versatile actor who was often at his best in dramatic and comedic roles. It’s only during the ’50s, following the phenomenal success of the remake of ‘Mystery of the Wax Museum‘, that his name became synonymous with horror.
In fact, when he starred in ‘The Mad Magician’ in 1954, he’d only been in three horror-themed films: ‘House of Wax’, released just a year prior, ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’, which was really a comedy, and ‘The Invisible Man Returns’, in which he only contributes his voice (otherwise, he’s on screen for one whole minute).
The picture was written by Crane Wilbur, who also adapted ‘House of Wax’ and would later write and direct another Price vehicle, ‘The Bat‘. It will seem vaguely familiar to anyone who’s seen ‘House of Wax’: A stage magician is double-crossed by a business partner and proceeds to use his craft to exact revenge on all who slight him.
Cue the gimmicky deaths.
I love me a good revenge story: some of my favourite films are ‘The Crow‘ and ‘Darkman‘. For some reason, I find it satisfying to see someone decent get to personally mete out justice for wrongs done to them. Consider it the daydream of someone with a chip on his shoulder, if you must, but sometimes I wish could do the same.
Of course, in ‘The Crow’ and ‘Darkman’, the avengers are our protagonists, whereas in ‘House of Wax’, the avenger is undeniably the villain. Interestingly, ‘The Mad Magician’ falls right down the middle, offering a protagonist who is wading into the deep end, but who is sympathetic enough that you can empathize with him.
Much of the credit falls to Vincent Price, who has enough natural charm to soften Don Gallico’s edges. He also has presence, that mysterious quality that makes some performers infinitely more watchable than their peers, even when they’re not in top form. Here, Price rages rather convincingly as the betrayed prestidigitator.
His fans are sure to be pleased.
Another of the picture’s key draws are Gallico’s magic tricks themselves; though, after an initial performance, the tricks are mostly relegated to show and tells (as the twisted inventor explains his latest gadgets), there’s something hypnotic, if not awe-inspiring, about watching magicians in the act; their stagecraft impresses.
The black and white picture was an early vehicle for 3D, and this gimmick adds to the magic tricks’ novel effects. Although I didn’t benefit from a 3D screen, classic 3D films weren’t exactly subtle in their use of stereoscopic visuals and it’s obvious what was intended to pop – even in 2D. And, frankly, it was fun to imagine the possibilities.
Like in ‘House of Wax’, some of it is patently absurd, like an opening act swinging yo-yos at the screen, but there are amusing bits, like Gallico spraying water towards the audience. And not all gimmicks are visual, either: for instance, there’s a moment when Gallico directs the orchestra for his show and the soundtrack actually responds.
The one thing that really fails in this movie, though, is the conceit that Gallico is a brilliant make-up artist and impersonator who can pass himself off as anyone he wishes. The problem is that the masks aren’t convincing and Price’s 6’4″ frame is unmistakable – though overdubbed by the original actors, we know that it’s him.
Why doesn’t anyone else, I wondered?
Still, despite this and a generic -and contrived- plot, ‘The Mad Magician’ is a fairly entertaining motion picture (that, at barely 70 minute long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, helps). It’s certainly not grand cinema, but it’s an enjoyable little nugget that unfortunately might not make it on anyone’s radar due to its fairly low profile.
I’m not mad about it, but I look forward to seeing it again.
Date of viewing: September 9, 2017