Friday, September 30, 2016

Season of Horror: The Magician (1926)

Buckle up, my friends. Tonight's feature presentation is Rex Ingram's The Magician, which is beautifully tinted with original music by Robert Israel. With silent film, it's crucial to have a score that reflects the mood and action of the film, and Robert Israel does not disappoint. I am watching this movie on the Warner Archive Collection DVD

We open with a wonderful shot in Paris with a gargoyle in the foreground and the Eiffel Tower in the distance, with streets populated by pedestrians and traversed by few cars. We make our way to the studio of Margaret Dauncey, Sculpteur, who is working atop stairs on an enormous bestial sculpture. Some bearded artistic looking gent is admiring her process, and a closer look at her craftsmanship reveals a figure that bears a similarity to the Greek God Pan.

Artist Susie Boyd, who's been diligently working on a painting in the background, is signing her work entitled "Sunrise on the Seine," but after some consideration decides to change 'sunrise' to 'sunset.'

Definitely a sunset.

As Margaret puts the finishing touches on her sculpture, we see the head begin to turn from behind as though it were coming to life, and it becomes clear that the massive head is about to topple. Susie Boyd recognizes it just as we do, but despite her warning, the mammoth head is already falling atop Margaret. What a fabulous and horrific beginning to a film!

That looks like some dangerous stunt work.

"The saving of human life is a comparatively simple matter. On the other hand, the scientific creation of life does indeed call for the powers of a magician."

Susie runs for help and, despite the possible injury to her spine, the people who come to her aid lift her up awkwardly. Dr. Porhoët, Margaret's uncle and guardian calls Dr. Arthur Burdon about his niece's injured spine and resulting paralysis. Dr. Burdon must be really good, because without having seen the patient or any X-rays of her injuries, he knows just what to do and schedules her surgery for the next day at 11 o'clock.

Margaret lies unconscious, unaware of her injuries, with her faithful friend and pooch nearby.

Dr. Burdon is such a fantastic surgeon that, on last minute notice, the medical world of Paris is able to find a seat in the operating theater to see the American surgeon perform another miracle.

Included in the audience is the entirely creepy magician, hypnotist and student of medicine, Oliver Haddo, who is fogging up the observation glass.

The operation is a success and Dr. Burdon tells Margaret's uncle that she's the most beautiful patient he's ever had, which seems an inappropriate comment while she's still unclothed in the operating room. Haddo also seems intensely interested in Margaret as she's carried out of the OR. We see him next in the library looking up secrets of ancient magic and he appears to have found what he's been looking for.

Margaret makes a complete recovery and is having a wonderful time getting to know Dr. Arthur.

They meet up with Oliver Haddo as they take a walk through the gardens, and he offers Margaret a rose, which pricks her. Arthur astutely remarks, "He looks as if he had stepped out of a melodrama," after which, Haddo looks back and melodramatically swings his cloak over his shoulder.

Arthur takes Margaret to the Fair, where there are all sorts of interesting diversions.

They encounter Oliver Haddo again and he presents Margaret with a portrait of himself in silhouette, which she passes to Arthur, who also passes it, and as it goes from hand to hand, it's clear to see nobody wants this guy's portrait. He invites them to the snake charmer's tent, and when Arthur tries to reassure Margaret that the snakes used have had their fangs extracted, Haddo contradicts him and says they are very poisonous.

He claims he can use magic to make a venomous snake harmless. He grabs the snake and allows it to bite him, and after showing the bite to the group, waves his hand over it, mutters some words, and to their amazement, the bite disappears. They do not believe that the snake was poisonous, but when it bites one of the performers, she is overcome and Arthur rushes her to the hospital.

There is a brief exchange of humor between a sailor, who was giving the snake charmer's assistant the eye just before she was bitten, and another patron, who had earlier rested his hat on a balloon, which has now floated to the ceiling. The sailor deftly flicks his cigarette at the balloon, which pops, and the hat lands atop the gents head, allowing us all to be a little more at ease about the possibility that we just witnessed a woman die from a snake bite.

The next day, Margaret can't get the Magician's hypnotic eyes out of her mind. Haddo shows up at the house when he knows he can find Margaret alone, as he sent her companion out on a fool's errand, and lets himself in. He apologizes for the events at the fair and she demands that he leave, but he uses his hypnotic eyes to draw her over to the couch.

He plays a tune on the piano which further enhances the hypnotic effect and offers to show her strange things. He looks at the head of the sculpture that crushed her, and brings a bowl of water to her and begins dumping powders into it that smoke and fizzle as he wafts them over her. He then tells her to concentrate on the faun's head and she begins to see the strange things he spoke of.

Oh my. Nothing symbolic or suggestive there. She is notably distressed when she exits the hypnotic state and he hands her his address for when she wants him. Arthur shows up and she asks that he stay near her and take care of her, as she feels safe from the Magician's hypnotic power when he is around. She wishes they could get married at that moment since she fears something may happen to prevent the wedding in two days.

When she gets home from her date, she finds a message from Haddo in the keyhole requesting that she meet with him the next morning over a matter of great importance. She goes to his home looking upset and turns to leave, when she feels his hypnotic gaze upon her and is pulled back in. While he waits for her to come in, he reviews the formula for creating human life. It's a very specific recipe.

She asks why he won't leave her alone. He invites her to leave and she says she cannot go, and further states that her wedding is the next day. He gets animated and says some things that make me wish I were a better lip reader, though we can assume it has to do with letting the lusty goat guy grapple with her in the hypnotic dream state, and she looks anguished when he says she won't marry Arthur for that reason.

The morning of the wedding, with the house all decorated and tables set for a wedding feast, Susie reads a note from Margaret asking her to tell Arthur that she was married to Oliver Haddo.

Arthur is dismayed as he gazes at the beautifully decorated wedding cake, but Dr. Porhoët insists she did not marry him of her own free will and that she is being held under his hypnotic influence and they should keep her in sight. Arthur follows them to the Riviera, where he loses track of them.

Haddo has brought his new wife to Monte Carlo to make big money at the roulette wheel, where Arthur eventually catches up to them.

The following morning, Arthur receives a note from Margaret.

While Margaret waits for Arthur, we see Haddo and his assistant heading for his stronghold at Latourette.

Margaret explains to Arthur that she has no will of her own and he reassures her that he does not hold her responsible and that nothing could lessen his affection for her.

Haddo enters his well equipped laboratory with his assistant.

Margaret explains to Arthur that she has never been Haddo's wife, that they are married in name only, and Arthur wonders what he intends to do with her. She believes he intends to kill her in an experiment of magic.

He tells her that she's coming with him now and that her uncle is on his way and they will arrange a divorce immediately, which sounds like a great idea. We see Haddo working in his lab and Margaret tells Arthur that it's no use because Haddo will find her anyway. Arthur wraps her in coat and brings her along with him anyway.

Dr. Porhoët places her in a sanatorium near Nice and a week goes by without hearing from Haddo, allowing Margaret a sense of security and feeling that it was all a horrible dream.

Dr. Porhoët and Arthur read a telegram, informing them of Haddo's whereabouts and indicating the type of danger he poses. Dr. Porhoët remarks that he suspected his madness and that it was a good thing they were able to get Margaret away from him.

They arrive at the sanatorium and are told that Margaret is nowhere to be found, and that a note addressed to Arthur was found on her pillow.

Haddo's carriage crosses a bridge, as a hypnotized Margaret sits unknowingly in his maniacal clutches, on her way to fulfill his recipe to create life.

Dr. Porhoët and Arthur must race to save Margaret, but are informed by their driver that the road to Haddo's is inaccessible by automobile, and he can only take them part way. They decide to go as far as they can by car, though the roads do not seem conducive to fast pursuit.

Haddo carries the unconscious Margaret up his winding staircase while his faithful assistant looks extremely pleased. The rescuers have come as far as they can and have engaged a carriage to carry them the rest of the way, in hopes they'll reach the fair maiden in time.

I would encourage you, dear reader, to stop here and see this magnificent film for yourself before finding out how this all turns out, however, if you just have to know, then please continue with eyes wide open, as we must go forth with our fearless characters in darkness.

Haddo consults his formula once more. Margaret is bound and gagged, and is now awake and horrifyingly aware of her circumstances. He begins mixing his vile potion.

Our plucky heroes reach a village, where they are informed that no guide will approach the sorcerer's tower at night. Dr. Porhoët begins extracting bills from his wallet, and when he's reached an amount that helps the guide overcome his fear, he accepts the payment and they head toward the tower.

Meanwhile, Haddo is pulling a lever as Margaret looks on in horror, and her loved ones continue to make their way to her through the rough terrain in the dark and stormy night.

Haddo stokes the fire as Arthur and Margaret's uncle reach his lair, along with their guide.

Haddo removes his box of surgical instruments from a cabinet and turns his gaze to Margaret with a hideous expression on his face.

Arthur peers through the keyhole and sees Haddo's assistant approaching the door, so the three back away and grab him as he exits.

Haddo appears to be ready as he approaches Margaret with a look of anticipation.

Arthur makes his way to the spiral staircase, realizing he's got a ways to go to reach Margaret as Haddo uses scissors to cut open her dress to all the more readily obtain her heart blood.

He reaches for his knife and she begins to scream for Arthur. He hears her and looks up in terror.

Haddo hypnotizes her to silence and her struggles cease. You would think he might have done this beforehand to save himself the trouble, though this nut seemed to perversely enjoy her awareness of her impending doom. He picks up the knife to do the evil deed, just as Arthur bursts into the room. Haddo is none to pleased to see him.

He flies at Arthur in a rage and hurls the knife at him, just narrowly missing him and impaling the door next to his head. Arthur dashes toward him and starts throwing punches and is getting in some good licks while his compatriots struggle to stuff the dwarf assistant into a cabinet.

The guide barricades the cabinet with his body to hold the dwarf while Porhoët runs up the stairs to assist Arthur. Haddo manages to throw a punch that knocks Arthur to the floor and then grabs a chair to smash over him. Porhoët's arrival startles him and he angrily throws it at him instead, knocking him down. He follows up by throwing a container of some corrosive chemical, which breaks in front of the doctor, forming a cloud of noxious gas.

This really pisses Arthur off, and he lunges for Haddo, attempting to strangle him from behind, but is forced to let go when he bites down on his hand. Dr. Porhoët's gasping figure is obscured by the cloud of fumes.

Haddo wrestles Arthur to the floor and pounds his head into unconsciousness. He opens the doors to his fiery pit and proceeds to drag his body toward it. It looks as though our hero is doomed.

But wait! He suddenly regains consciousness and once again struggles with the evil magician. Dr. Porhoët emerges from the haze, just as Arthur breaks free of Haddo's grip, causing him to lose his balance and fall into the fire pit.

His hypnotic hold on Margaret immediately ends and she awakens. The rescuers go to her side and release her from her bonds as we see the dwarf struggling to get out of the cabinet that is blocked by the guide. Arthur cradles her in his embrace and they kiss as the smiling uncle looks on with his head bloodied.

As they leave the laboratory, Dr. Porhoët sees the formula on the ground, which he immediately burns.

The good doctor sets about destroying the lab. He overturns a table but then appears to decide it's more expedient to burn the whole thing down by tossing a molotov cocktail. He awakens the guide on his way out, which releases the dwarf, who runs upstairs, presumably to assist his master.

As he enters the burning room, there is a fiery explosion.

Arthur and Margaret hear the blast and stop to turn back and see its destruction.

Haddo's assistant clings to a tree with most of his clothes dangling from him as a bat darts at him and  the tower burns.


When I first saw this movie, I had to wonder why it was not as well known as Phantom of the Opera or Nosferatu. Apparently, this film was lost for some time, and I have to say I'm really happy it was found. This is truly a wonderful early horror film that deserves to enjoy a greater audience. It is visually stunning. There are some fabulous location shots in France and Monte Carlo that add to the beauty of this film. The hypnotic dream sequence must have been quite shocking, and probably titillating, to audiences in 1926. It's another reminder that silent films were also pre-code films. Was that a naked satyr's bum we just saw prancing about? Yes, it was!

There are some scenes that I initially wondered about their inclusion. At the snake charmer's tent, a frightened woman is startled by a small boy blowing a party horn, and a patron's hat that has floated up to the top of the tent by balloon is brought down by a sailor. I believe these brief bits of unrelated comedy were placed to reduce the viewer's tension from the horror they were unaccustomed to witnessing on screen. We encounter another bit of comedy at the end, when we see the dwarf dangling, with his pants hanging down in shreds, as a bat darts in to nip at him, after believing he'd been killed in the blast.

The end sequence when the heroes are racing to save Margaret was truly suspenseful, and the scenes in the lab with the madman preparing to eviscerate her were truly horrifying. Of course, we're expecting the heroes to be victorious in this film, but the fight scenes at the end were well orchestrated to make it look like they at least had to work for it. The explosion at the end was fantastic! Many have suggested this movie paved the way for films like Universal's Frankenstein and the other Universal Monsters. I think if you enjoy those films, you would also enjoy this one. This movie deserves as much recognition as any of the other early horror films we've come to love.

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