Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Mad Magician (1954)

The Mad Magician, made in 1954, was an attempt by Columbia to cash in on the success of The House of Wax, which in 1953 had established Vincent Price as the new king of horror. It follows a very similar formula, and like The House of Wax it was shot in 3-D.

Don Gallico (Vincent Price) is about to make his debut as a magician, as Gallico the Great. Gallico has spent years inventing magic tricks for other magicians. He is a partner in a form that specialises in this business. Gallico the Great’s first performance is going well but just before he does his greatest trick, The Lady and Buzzsaw illusion, his business partner Ross Ormond (Donald Randolph) arrives at the theatre with an injunction. Gallico now discovers that the contract he had signed with Ormond gives Ormond ownership of every illusion he creates. Gallico the Great had been scheduled to make his Broadway debut at the 44th Street Theatre but now The Lady and Buzzsaw illusion will be performed at that theatre by The Great Rinaldi (John Emery).

Something inside of Gallico snaps and he murders Ormond.

Part of Gallico the Great’s act involved impersonations of other magicians. Gallico had devised extraordinarily life-like masks to aid him in his impersonations and now he will use those masks to get away with murder. Or so he hopes.

He has one big problem to deal with - his wife Claire (Eva Gabor) had divorced him to marry Ormond (the resentment engendered by this provided part of the motivation for his murder of Ormond). Claire know him too well to be fooled by a mask. And he has yet another problem - a landlady who is a writer of detective stories. Alice Prentice (Lenita Lane) not only writes about murder - she considers herself to be an expert on the subject and her snooping will cause Gallico a great deal of discomfort.

Gallico’s assistant in his act was to have been Karen Lee (Mary Murphy). Karen’s boyfriend is a New York cop, a Detective-Lieutenant, Alan Bruce (Patrick O’Neal). Bruce finds himself investigating a murder, but not the murder of Ross Ormond. Ross Ormond is dead, but the police don’t know that and they consider him to be the chief suspect in another murder case.

This is a perfect role for Price and he makes the most of it. Don Gallico is a classic Vincent Price villain, an essentially good man whose mind is twisted by disappointment and who becomes a monster. The other actors are all quite adequate but this movie belongs to Vincent Price.

The illusions are a major highlight of the movie. They’re deliciously twisted and macabre. A magic act based on a small-scale replica of a crematorium might be in very bad taste but it works wonderfully well in a horror movie. The Lady and the Buzzsaw illusion makes use of delightfully macabre props as well.

After getting off to a very impressive start with 20th Century-Fox in the 40s German-born director John Brahm’s career had its ups and downs, mostly downs, but he did have a genuine flair for horror.

This movie has been released in Sony’s made-on-demand DVD range. The transfer is strictly 2-D but it looks pretty good even if the price is absurdly excessive.

The Mad Magician is not one of Vincent Price’s great movies but it’s entertaining and it’s worth a look, especially if you’re a fan of horror involving stage magic. Recommended.

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