Monday, 2 March 2015

Black Magic (1949)

The Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (1743-1795) is a fascinating historical figure. An occultist, a Freemason, an accomplished charlatan, a swindler and adventurer, he was certainly no count and was probably born Giuseppe Balsamo. His colourful life naturally attracted the attention of writers of fiction. Alexandre Dumas, père featured Cagliostro in two of his novels in the 1840s and the 1949 Italian-US movie Black Magic takes Dumas’ stories as its starting point.

Cagliostro’s involvement in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, a scandal which did much to damage the reputation of Queen Marie Antoinette and to set the stage for the French Revolution, provides the main thrust of Charles Bennett’s screenplay. The movie plays fast and loose with history although not having read Dumas’ novel I can’t say whether the historical inaccuracies were the fault of Dumas or Bennett. 

The movie begins with the execution of two gypsies for sorcery. Their son Joseph Balsamo witnesses their executions and is flogged. He was sentenced to be blinded as well but is rescued by the gypsies. Balsamo grows up determined to exact vengeance from the Viscount de Montagne, the man who ordered his parents’ execution.

Grown to manhood, Balsamo (Orson Welles) makes his living as a carnival illusionist and purveyor of patent medicines. Balsamo’s ability to convince a woman who is in great pain that she is actually experiencing no pain at all attracts the attention of Franz Anton Mesmer, the scientist who was the first to describe the the phenomenon of hypnosis (which he called animal magnetism). Mesmer realises that Balsamo has an extraordinary natural gift that could make him a great healer. Balsamo is more interested in using his gift to turn a profit for himself.

Before long Balsamo has metamorphosed into the Count di Cagliostro and has used his abilities to gain fame and fortune. A chance encounter with a young woman named Lorenza (Nancy Guild) will have fateful consequences. Lorenza just happens to be the spitting image of the Princess Marie Antoinette and this resemblance has attracted the notice of none other than Cagliostro’s old enemy the Viscount de Montagne who is involved in an elaborate plot with King Louis XV’s official mistress Madame du Barry (Margot Grahame) to discredit Marie Antoinette. Cagliostro senses the opportunity to enrich himself and to gain his revenge on the Viscount de Montagne. What he hasn’t counted on is falling in love with Lorenza, a love which becomes an obsession and a love which the lady most emphatically does not reciprocate. 

Cagliostro’s plottings rely on his ability to bend people to his will. Mesmer’s theories of animal magnetism were rather more occult than the modern science of hypnosis and the movie credits Cagliostro with powers that are closer to outright mind control than to modern notions of hypnosis. Cagliostro can force people to do just about anything, even things they very much do not wish to do.

It’s all very melodramatic and far-fetched but then the career of the real life Cagliostro was very melodramatic and far-fetched. Producer-director Gregory Ratoff handles the material with a certain amount of panache. This is one of the many movies in which Orson Welles is not credited as director but probably did have a hand in the directing and some of the more over-the-top sequences do seem to have a certain Wellesian touch to them.

The movie’s biggest asset though is Welles as actor, delivering a typically bravura performance that is enough to compensate for the movie’s occasional false steps. Nancy Guild was a competent actress but playing dual roles in a movie like this was probably a little outside of her range. She’s actually quite good as Marie Antoinette but as Lorenza she seems rather unsure of herself. In fairness to her the part of Lorenza is badly underwritten and would have given any actress very little to work with.

Akim Tamiroff has fun as Gitano, Cagliostro’s faithful gypsy side-kick. Valentina Cortese goes nicely over-the-top as Zoraida, the gypsy woman who loves Cagliostro. 

The best scene in the movie has Cagliostro very cleverly turning the tables on a cable of doctors trying to discredit him.

There’s also a scene in which Cagliostro fires at least three shots from a single-shot pistol without reloading and then tells his adversary he still has one bullet left. Now that’s real magic. 

This was probably not a very big-budget movie but it certainly looks lavish with some magnificent sets and some stunning costumes.

The Region 1 DVD from Henstooth Video is slightly problematical. There’s quite a bit of print damage although fortunately none it very serious and some scenes do look a bit washed-out. On the whole it’s an acceptable if less than stellar transfer but perhaps a little overpriced for what is clearly an unrestored print. 

Black Magic is silly spirited fun and Orson Welles as Cagliostro is more than sufficient reason for seeing this movie. Recommended.

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