A Movie A Day: Tony Curtis as HOUDINI (1953) Drop it. It will make you famous, but it will kill you.
Published at: Sept. 25, 2008, 12:49 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Today we follow Janet Leigh over from yesterday’s noir thriller ACT OF VIOLENCE to today’s 1953 biopic HOUDINI.
She co-stars with her then husband Tony Curtis as the titular Harry Houdini and you can tell they were still deep in love in this film. If I’m not mistaken this was their first feature pairing, the only earlier co-starring effort I found after a quick IMDB search was a Jerry Lewis short film called HOW TO SMUGGLE A HERNIA ACROSS THE BORDER (1949).
They have an easy chemistry in this film that helps keep it moving quickly along. Add on top of that Houdini’s already fascinating life and Tony Curtis at his charismatic best and you get a quite memorable and entertaining movie.
A big surprise here was that this film was produced by the legendary George Pal, known mostly in geek circles for his sci-fi of this era like WAR OF THE WORLDS (which was actually produced concurrently with HOUDINI), DESTINATION MOON, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and THE TIME MACHINE.
The film shares a lot of those sci-fi aesthetics, especially in the color scheme. The bright Technicolor world perfectly reflects the light tone of the flick.
Sure, it may not be terribly accurate, but I think it does a fantastic job at capturing the legend of Houdini.
We start by seeing him play a two-bit traveling circus and doing a few tricks for young Bess (Leigh) who he instantly falls for. She rebuts him at first, but he tries again another two times. Third time’s the charm (according to Houdini in the movie everything happens in threes for him) and they elope almost instantly.
The first act pretty much deals with him settling for a job at a lock-making factory when the poor traveling magician act is too much for Leigh to handle. He’s miserable, but he wants to keep her happy.
Through a series of circumstances Houdini ends up proving his worth at a magician’s ball, being the first man to successfully wrestle out of a straight jacket, and wins a trip to Europe.
The movie really pulled me in when they got to Europe and he was able to follow his dream.
The magic in this movie holds up even today. I know how they did a lot of the tricks, but it was fascinating watching Curtis actually pulling them off. Sure, some of the time director George Marshall cuts away and back again, allowing for some cheating, but a lot of the gags were actually done by Curtis and Leigh, who takes his side as his assistant… and boy oh boy was Leigh f’n hot in her magician’s assistant get up!
I wonder what it’s like for Jamie Lee Curtis to watch some of these old movies with her parents, especially this one where they were still young in life and marriage, a good five years away from bringing Jamie Lee into the world. It must be both sweet and bizarre to have a record of your parents, see that obvious chemistry and adoration recorded in unreal beautiful Technicolor.
Anyway, I’m going to keep this short. I just finished watching the movie after a full day of movies and I have an interview in 4 hours followed by my final day of Fantastic Fest… I will surely be falling into a rather long and deep coma when I return home from the closing night party.
I will say if you decide to give this one a spin (which I recommend) keep an eye out for the great Scotland Yard jailbreak challenge and the pretty tense water-escape gone wrong where Houdini gets trapped in a freezing river under a foot of ice.
Final Thoughts: The magic is still very fun to watch, the photography is lush and beautiful (even in the then standard full frame format), the two leads are great together and the legend of Houdini is captured perfectly, even if the truth wasn’t so much. They touch upon his obsession with the afterlife, but really only dedicated about 4 minutes of screentime with Houdini’s fascination with psychics and finding a direct line to his dead mother. We do end rather abruptly, but on Houdini’s promise to find a way to come back if there is any way at all. That aspect of his life has always really interested me, but that’s not the whole aim of this flick and I understand that. I really enjoyed the film, which is a nice bit of luck considering just how fucking tired I am.
The schedule for the next 7 days is:
Thursday, September 25th: MONEY FROM HOME (1953)
Friday, September 26th: PAPA’S DELICATE CONDITION (1963)
Saturday, September 27th: DILLINGER (1945)
Sunday, September 28th: BATTLE OF THE BULGE (1965)
Monday, September 29th: DAISY KENYON (1947)
Tuesday, September 30th: LAURA (1944)
Tomorrow we hit one of the more obscure Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin comedies MONEY FROM HOME via director George Marshall. I’ve only seen one or two Martin and Lewis comedies, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen, so I hope this one ends up being good.
You may have noticed that I haven’t added another movie to the Upcoming Films line-up. The reason is because the next movie up would be October 1st and I don’t know what that title will be.
I’m freezing the regular schedule after LAURA until November 1st, when I’ll pick it back up with Fox Noir BLACK WIDOW. For the entire month of October I will be watching randomly picked horror titles. No connecting tissues, no real order, just a movie picked out of a hat essentially.
I have compiled somewhere between 40-60 horror movies I have not seen and all of them will go into this random pull. Some of them are new (like Argento’s latest MOTHER OF TEARS, which I haven’t seen yet), but most of them are ‘40s-‘80s, with a particular bent towards ‘70s and ‘80s horror.
This weekend I’ll create a page that has every title in the running (I may add on as I pick up more titles from here until the end of October, which seems to be when all the good horror DVD sales start) and link you to it as soon as I have it done. But that’ll be after tomorrow’s Fantastic Fest and after I awaken from my movie-coma.
I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and I look forward to hitting a ton of cheesy fun horror flicks!