Films about Magicians

As with novels, films about magicians often turn out to involve wizardry and supernatural forces. Here are some I’ve seen that are about prestidigitators, illusionists and magic shows.

The Illusionist (2006)

Set in Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, this is a beautiful film, full of romance, politics and, yes, illusions (including the Orange Tree, originally invented by Robert-Houdin and currently performed by Rob James as part of his show Magicana). It’s based on the short story Eisenheim the Illusionist by Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Steven Millhauser and stars Edward Norton as the son of a cabinet-maker whose life is transformed by a chance encounter with a travelling magician and the love he shares with the aristocratic Sophie. The great cast makes the most of the satisfying tale; Paul Giamatti deserves a particular mention as the policeman caught between the cold and dangerous Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell) and the brilliant and always-one-step-ahead Eisenheim. I enjoyed this film the first time I saw it and I liked it even better the second time, when I knew what to expect.

The magic is wonderfully done and several top magicians were involved as consultants and tutors – on the British side, principally James Freedman, assisted by Scott Penrose; on the American side, Ricky Jay and Michael Weber.

The Prestige (2006)

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale star as two rival magicians in this film of the book by Christopher Priest (see Books about Magicians). Lots of magic, in a period London setting. Great cast, including Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and David Bowie. The magician Ricky Jay also appears; he and his business partner Michael Weber were consultants for the magic.

Cleverly constructed plot but for me it’s undermined by the single, small but important element of science fiction. If I’m honest, I didn’t really like this film – it’s uncomfortable viewing and quite nasty in places. However, there are interesting themes and ideas in it and I can’t deny it’s gripping. Like the excellent Memento, also directed by Christopher Nolan, The Prestige has a non-linear narrative (ie, the story is not told in chronological order). Partly for this reason, you’ll probably want to watch it again as soon as it’s finished.  

Scoop (2006)

This is a Woody Allen film about a student journalist (Scarlett Johansson) who receives a tip-off from a deceased reporter that the son of a well known aristocrat may be a serial killer. She investigates the suspect (Hugh Jackman), with the help of the magician (Allen) at whose show the apparition occurred. The action takes place in London, with the two Americans posing as father and daughter for their undercover sleuthing through British high society.

I am by no means a connoisseuse of Woody Allen and didn’t really know what to expect. When it became clear that some of the characters in the story are actually dead, I was afraid the film was going to descend into more farcical weirdness than I would be able to stand, but once the premise is established the plot stays in the land of the living. My only objection, coming from the perspective I do, is that having a ghost appear at a magic show completely overshadows the conjuring. The audience at the show takes it to be an additional illusion but for us at home it kills the magic. Overall, despite Scott Penrose’s involvement, there is a disappointing scarcity of magical effects.

Nevertheless, I liked the fact Woody Allen’s character is a magician, both by profession and by nature – he can’t help doing card tricks at every opportunity. Opinion is divided as to whether Scoop is a welcome return to form for Woody Allen or the worst film he’s ever made; as a novice, I can’t comment beyond saying I enjoyed it.

Magicians (2007)

Comedians Mitchell and Webb take on the roles of conjurors who start off as friends working as a double act but become sworn enemies. There are echoes of The Prestige but, believe me, the atmosphere is completely different!

Bitter rivals Harry and Karl try to force themselves to bury their differences and take part together in a magic competition in order to revive their careers. But they can’t do it and decide to enter separately. The dénouement is cathartic and – as with the whole story – not entirely unpredictable. This is not a deep film and although there is some nice parody it’s not a satire; it’s intended as light, comedy entertainment and I think it fulfils that aim. It’s quite amusing and I enjoyed the fact that it’s a modern British film set in the world of magic.

Some high-level magical involvement in this film. Look out for cameo appearances by Pat Page and Ali Bongo (both now deceased) and by Aladin. David Britland, Andy Nyman and Anthony Owen helped with the writing and the director, Andrew O’Connor, is also a magician. Scott Penrose was there too, teaching magic to Mitchell and Webb, building illusions for the actors to perform and playing the part of Magibot.

Death Defying Acts (2007)

Set in Edinburgh in 1926, this is the fictional tale of a stage ‘psychic’, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, and her young daughter (Saoirse Ronan) as they attempt to out-con the great illusionist Harry Houdini. A lightweight film but, I thought, an enjoyable one, based on the genuine premise that the famous escapologist made efforts to contact his dead mother and put a lot of energy into debunking mediums.

Guy Pearce stars as Houdini and to prepare for the part he spent six weeks studying with Australian magician Ross Skiffington. Scott Penrose was also involved in the production, as magical adviser.

Is Anybody There? (2008)

Michael Caine stars as a retired magician who reluctantly moves into an old folks’ home in 1980s Yorkshire. The Amazing Clarence is ‘raging against the dying of the light’ and struggling to come to terms with getting old without the wife whom he neglected and who ultimately divorced him. Edward, the young boy whose parents run the establishment, is obsessed with the question of what happens to people after they die. Magic brings these two together and they become friends, discussing life and death and trying to make sense of it all. This film is rather sad but very well done, with several layers of issues to think about.

Lots of conjuring in it – magic isn’t just Clarence’s background, he brings it to life for Edward and encourages him to learn the skills. In order for this to happen on screen, Scott Penrose taught magic to Michael Caine and to the young Bill Milner.

The Great Buck Howard (2008)

Based on the experience of writer/director Sean McGinly as road manager to The Amazing Kreskin, this film is much more subtle and textured than your average comedy-drama. Colin Hanks plays the narrator, a young man who drops out of law school to take the job with the almost-past-it mentalist, to the displeasure of his father (real-life dad, Tom Hanks). The story follows Buck’s attempt to promote a resurgence in his popularity and involves an impressive number of American celebrities playing themselves, including George Takei, David Blaine and Jay Leno. Ricky Jay was magical adviser and also has a reasonably substantial acting part.

John Malkovich is remarkable in the title role, showing us a fully rounded portrait of flawed, lonely but colourful and charismatic character, who can be brash and overbearing but also practical, paternal and even vulnerable.

This film confounded my expectations at nearly every turn. John Malkovich’s layered and engaging performance is a masterpiece and the picture as a whole has depth and resonance belied by the posters and introductory scenes.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

An excellent commentary on the state of the magical art in 2013, which makes all the right points and left me feeling positive and hopeful about its future.

Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi play two magician friends whose Las Vegas show was once packed out but, having made not one concession to the changing times, is now stale and dated. When a street magician/stunt puller (Jim Carrey) starts attracting a lot of publicity, it’s time for Burt and Anton to rethink their magic.

Slightly uncomfortable in places and cringy in a few others, this film stays the right side of goofball and I laughed out loud a couple of times (not at the obvious ‘comedy’, which didn’t always work, but at some of Burt’s lines). The characters are stylised – one might even say caricatured – but still managed to make me care what happened to them. I would like to have seen more of Jane, but the fact that she featured at all as a female magician is one of the points I applaud the film for making. Illusion and allusion given the Hollywood treatment: I recommend it to everyone who’s interested in magic.

Magicians on Television

More and more magic shows, magic competitions and street magic are being shown on television, which is all part of the pleasing revival of the public’s interest in conjuring. However, this section is about fiction.

Over the years, fictional magicians have appeared on television in all sorts of guises and as both heroes and villains.

The Magician

Bill Bixby was an accomplished magician and a member of The Magic Castle. In the mid 1970s, he starred in a series called The Magician, in which he played a famous stage magician who uses his knowledge of the magical arts to solve crimes. As drama, it’s somewhat dated but the magic parts are fun. It seems to be hard to get hold of now and I’ve seen only a borrowed copy.

Magicians in mainstream crime drama

Magicians are investigated by a variety of detectives in American crime drama.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation – In Season 3 Part 1, episode 5 is called Abra Cadaver and involves murder at a magic show.

CSI New York – In Season 3 Part 2, episode 18 is called Sleight Out of Hand and stars Criss Angel as street magician Luke Blade.

Columbo – Less gorily, the LAPD lieutenant brushes with magic a couple of times:

Now You See Him – Season 5
Jack Cassidy plays The Great Santini, a magician with a shady past, who thinks he has committed the perfect murder.

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine – Season 8
Anthony Andrews plays a phony psychic, who pulls off an impressive feat of mentalism but fails to fool the great detective.

Diagnosis Murder – Not gorily at all, Dr Mark Sloan investigates a murder at a magic show. Dick van Dyke is a keen amateur magician, as is the character he plays, and it’s all very jolly. Magic comes up occasionally across the several series but the one at the magic show is Murder with Mirrors, Season 1, episode 10.

Monk – Obsessive compulsive detective Adrian Monk is not the sort of person a magician wants in the audience. In Mr Monk and the Magician (Season 7, episode 15), actor and magician Steve Valentine (originally from Scotland) plays The Great Torini.

Numb3rs – In Season 5, episode 6, entitled Magic Show, mathematical genius Charlie Eppes and his colleagues pit their wits against some magicians, to help the FBI solve a murder. The whole episode is about stage magic and Penn Jillette has quite a big part, playing himself.

Dalziel and Pascoe – For the sake of getting a British one in, let’s include the episode in Series 11 (the last series) of Dalziel and Pascoe, called Demons on Our Shoulders, in which Richard E Grant plays a stage hypnotist/illusionist. This is by no means the best episode of this generally excellent detective drama but it illustrates one of the stereotypes of stage magicians.

The Mentalist

Patrick Jane, played by Simon Baker, is a maverick detective attached to the California Bureau of Investigation. He used to work as a ‘psychic’ and now applies the skills of this trade to solving crimes, principally tracking down the serial killer Red John, who murdered Jane’s wife and daughter. Essentially, these skills are finely honed powers of observation and a deep understanding of human nature, along the lines of Sherlock Holmes’s. The Mentalist is light, undemanding entertainment and I like the way Jane has an aura about him, that although we know he has no supernatural powers, we also know he knows more than we do, as every good mentalist should.

Jonathan Creek

This character, created by David Renwick, partially inspired by Ali Bongo and portrayed by Alan Davies, is consultant to a stage illusionist. The stories involve him solving mysterious crimes using a magician’s lateral thinking. Although there are dashes of comedy throughout, later episodes become much darker than the early ones were and I liked it best in the days of Caroline Quentin as Maddy Magellan. Jonathan Creek is a popular cult figure/series and has contributed to the re-establishment of magic as an area of interest for adults.

The Big Bang Theory

I love the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory and find it interesting to observe Howard Wolowitz as an amateur magician. This is an ongoing theme and over the episodes we get to see quite a bit of magic. Even without that, though, I would recommend this series to anyone who enjoys intelligent comedy.

Las Vegas

Easy on the eye and making no claim to significance beyond having a good time, this series about life in a fictional casino is a nice way to spend 45 minutes if you’re mentally tired and especially in cold, dank weather. The glamorous cast of Las Vegas includes the lovely Marsha Thomason, originally from Manchester. Magicians feature occasionally in the stories and if you’re lucky they may even be ones you recognise: Penn and Teller make an appearance in Season 1, episode 8, and Criss Angel in Season 3, episode 8.