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Black Magic

by Glenn Erickson Feb 01, 2022

Orson Welles in fine form! This lavishly produced costume drama, beautifully cast and directed, was filmed on location in gorgeous Italian palazzos, churches and villas. Welles is cast to type as the literally mesmerizing mountebank Cagliostro, who aids Madame du Barry in a scheme to seize the throne of France. Welles almost certainly ‘helped’ the credited director; the highly theatrical goings-on look exactly like Orson’s style. Super performances from Nancy Guild, Akim Tamiroff, Valentina Cortese, Margot Grahame and Charles Goldner turn Alexandre Dumas’ tale into swashbuckling mind-control excitement; the disc tops it off with a sensationally good restoration.


Black Magic
Blu-ray
ClassicFlix
1949 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 105 min. / Street Date January 25, 2022 / Available from ClassicFlix / 19.99
Starring: Orson Welles, Nancy Guild, Akim Tamiroff, Charles Goldner, Stephen Bekassy, Valentina Cortese, Margot Grahame, Frank Latimore, Gregory Gaye, Berry Kroeger, Robert Atkins, Raymond Burr, Harriet White Medin, Silvana Mangano, Milly Vitale.
Cinematography: Ubaldo Arata, Anchise Brizzi
Art Directors: Jean d’Eaubonne, Ottavio Scotti
Costume design: Georges Annenkov, Vittorio Nino Novarese
Film Editor: Fred R. Feitshans Jr., James C. McKay
Original Music: Paul Sawtell
Written by Charles Bennett additional scenes and dialogue by Richard Schayer from a novel by Alexandre Dumas
Executive Producer Edward Small
Produced and Directed by
Gregory Ratoff

Producer Edward Small had been active since the silent era, and left his name on a string of notable films noir (Raw Deal, 99 River Street, New York Confidential) and fantasy thrillers (It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Jack the Giant Killer). He also associated with Billy Wilder for the superior Witness for the Prosecution. A famed deal-maker, Small’s most exotic show was initially cooked up during WW2 as a medium-budgeted costume thriller to perhaps be directed by Irving Pichel or Douglas Sirk, starring Charles Boyer or George Sanders. The proposed subject was Cagliostro, a colorful 18th-century swindler and mountebank, who came in contact with notables like Casanova, Benjamin Franklin and Marie Antoinette. Alexandre Dumas wrote a fanciful thriller about Cagliostro back in 1848, tying the character in with events preceding the French Revolution.

In the late ’40s cost-cutting Hollywood studios and independents were searching for places where movies could be made more cheaply. Producer Small first investigated Mexico, but found that his best bargain by far was Italy. He bought uo over a million dollars of ‘frozen Lira’ from other United Artists producers at a bargain discount. Then splitting his time between studios, Small dispatched producer-director Gregory Ratoff to film the Cagliostro project at the Scalera Studios in Rome. The screenplay by Charles Bennett granted Cagliostro the talent of hypnotism . . . which in the finished show comes off as near- supernatural mind control. Alexandre Dumas played fast and loose with history for his novel, and so does the film. The word hypnosis is spoken in the film, a term that wasn’t coined for another hundred years.

 

Star Orson Welles was freshly frozen out of directing in Hollywood, yet still in demand as an actor. Away from the direct influence of executive producer Small, it looks as though Welles had a major influence on Ratoff’s film. The very interesting casting isn’t necessarily Welles’s doing, but the direction is another matter — the resulting costume thriller Black Magic looks like an Orson Welles show. It’s not experimental or visually radical, but everything from the lighting to the dramatic camera angles shows a heavy Welles influence, so strong that one does visualize the actor taking over from the credited director.

Welles is famously quoted as saying that making Black Magic was the most fun he ever had making a movie, and we can guess why. Working far away from studio control or investor oversight, Welles probably enjoyed a creative lark with the film’s fine Italian production resources — and with none of the responsibilities attendant to official direction or production.

Black Magic covers a lot of material in just over a hundred minutes. A framing story has the author Dumas (Berry Kroeger) relating his latest novel to his son (Raymond Burr). Gypsy boy Joseph Balsamo survives the murder of his parents as well as a whipping meant to kill him. As an adult (Orson Welles) he becomes a carnival showman and seller of fake elixirs. During a single evening with ‘animal magnetism’ researcher Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (Charles Goldner), Balsamo realizes that his hypnotic skills are a potential gold mine — he ‘cures’ some nervous cases just by force of will. With his Gypsy cohorts Gitano and Zoralda (Akim Tamiroff & Valentina Cortese), Balsamo adopts the intimidating name ‘Count Cagliostro,’ becomes famous in various European capitals, and uses that notoriety to cheat his way to riches and power.

 

Cagliostro soon falls in with an ambitious scheme hatched by the very aristocrat who sentenced his parents to hang, the Viscount de Montagne (Stephen Bekassy). The Viscount has found a cultured young woman named Lorenza (Nancy Guild) who is identical in appearance to princess Marie Antoinette, the vain beauty who may soon be the Queen of all France. With the Viscount’s help, the treacherous Mme. du Barry (Margot Grahame) seeks to use Lorenza — hypnotized by Cagliostro — to discredit Marie Antoinette and seize the throne.

Cagliostro uses his hypnotic mental influence to force Lorenza to marry him. But he can’t make her forget her true love, Captain Gilbert de Rezel (Frank Latimore). He channels his anguish into his own grand scheme: he’ll double-cross his co-conspirators, using his popularity with the Paris mobs as well. The loyal but frightened Gitano can’t shake Cagliostro from carrying out a fantastic plan: the deranged mountebank purposely gets himself arrested, so he can use his public trial to make himself the ruler of all France.

Black Magic is a truly impressive production, starting with its phenomenal Italian locations. Incredibly ornate Italian buildings were used for many interiors. Marie Antoinette’s grand entrance takes place in a famed garden of fountains. Producer Small generated magazine articles and photo features showing the authentic palaces and churches used even for ‘incidental’ scenes.

How was all of this cooperation obtained?  The show was one of the first to take advantage of the dire economic conditions in postwar Italy. Many Italians had difficulty getting enough to eat. The financially strapped government and the Italo film industry would do almost anything to bring in foreign investment. Talent, facilities, labor were offered at bargain rates. With his ready cash Edward Small simply ‘took over’ the Scalera Studios. His is quoted as saying that incredible locations could be had for simple donation to a church fund. Black Magic abounds with fully-costumed crowds, carriages and horsemen. For a few years, American dollars could buy production value unheard of in Hollywood.

 

Aided by its genuinely baroque trimmings, the film is a mix of adroit direction and iffy editorial construction. It’s visually dazzling, to be sure: for once the French aristocracy is seen gathering and loitering in fully credible settings. The dramatic trial at the conclusion is staged in an enormous domed interior that matches the screenplay’s hightened dramatic pitch. The prologue with the Dumas père et fils establishes a level of writing not typical of costume swashbucklers. The childhood trauma backstory takes place in an expressionist setting out of Night of the Hunter or La maschera del demonio — young Joseph Balsamo’s parents hang from a gibbet in the background of almost every shot.

The first half of the story progresses brilliantly, with Welles’ Balsamo/Cagliostro using his wits and his uncanny power of mental persuasion to calm angry crowds and intimidate most everyone he meets. Welles makes a strong impression with his familiar ‘Man of Mystery’ stage devices: he stares and glares from under arched eyebrows, and strikes poses as stylized as those of Conrad Veidt’s sorcerer Jaffar. Welles lets us enjoy Cagliostro’s scheming thought processes, but also relies on external expressionist effects, like quick zooms and special lighting. He even uses ‘Bela Lugosi’ eye lights for some shots. Additional opticals isolate Cagliostro’s eyes and float them over scenes. This may be the end of Welles’ ability to play standard romantic leads, as he’s already beginning to get heavier.


A big plus is Nancy Guild, a stunning blonde beauty who radiates intelligence and wit (her name rhymes with ‘wild’). We’d think she was a stage sensation but no, Ms. Guild charted a starlet path, working for Joseph Mankiewicz and John Brahm and fizzling out in throwaway parts at Universal. Guild’s Lorenza has ‘storybook’ dignity and poise, with a warmly human quality. She also plays Marie Antoinette with ease, making her fiercely competitive and sharp-witted. Cagliostro is so charmed and distracted by his hypnotized bride that we almost sympathize with him.

The film’s supporting characters have a richness we seldom found in the average Hollywood costume thriller. English actress Margot Grahame sketches the scheming Madame du Barry in fine form — the jealous machinations between du Barry and Antoinette are better written than those in more serious ‘historical’ dramas. Stephan Bekassy’s villain is not a typical mustache-twirler but a credibly ambitious noble with a sadistic streak. He’s easily tripped up with an appeal to his vanity. The great Charles Goldner had been convincingly sinister in the Brit gangster pictures Brighton Rock and No Orchids for Miss Blandish. He’s a standout in this cast, as the one scientist capable of pulling the rug out from under Cagliostro’s illusions of mental infallibility.

Akim Tamiroff plays quality character support, without being used as comedy relief – Gitano is a loyal sidekick but neither witty nor sly. He and Valentina Cortese’s Zoraida express addional awe and fear of Cagliostro. Zoraida also loves Cagliostro, creating a sidebar tension that isn’t addressed — Cagliostro’s reversals of fortune are above her full understanding.

 

Black Magic would rise to classic status were it not for some awkward elements in its construction. Producer Small faulted Ratoff and Welles for going off script; he claimed that he had to film some inserts to make the story play clearly. As it is, a narration that should have stopped early on keeps coming back with too many redundant explanations. We’re even told what Cagliostro and others are thinking. At least once Akim Tamiroff’s Gitano delivers an expository message right after we’ve heard the narrator say the same thing. The ‘exterior’ narration prevents our 100% commitment to the story. We almost expect a sudden return to the flashback wraparound, to see Alexandre Dumas say, ‘That’s all I’ve got sonny boy, I haven’t figured out the ending yet!’

The story winds up atop a palazzo parapet, with a lively action scene that’s standard for Welles — several of his characters exit by falling from a great height. One down-angle from that rooftop appears to use an enormous Paris cityscape background rendered in semi-miniature. The action up top is a little confusing — does the movie really leave Marie Antoinette up on the roof, without bothering to get her down?

But the show loosened its grip a few reels before, with Cagliostro’s ‘Mesmerizing’ miracles. The storyline tries to convince us that Cagliostro’s power is simply a dynamic and commanding personality, extraordinarily intelligent. Yet in movie terms, what we see plays like standard supernatural hokum, as in ‘Mandrake the Magician gestures hypnotically.’ The hypnotized Lorenza is a powerless zombie under Cagliostro’s spell/influence/whatever, yet while Mesmerized is also able to perform a terrific Marie Antoinette impersonation. They only way Cagliostro could be ‘pulling her strings’ is through mental telepathy. When ‘the spell’ is broken, Lorenza is freed as if a remote control linkage has been cut off. Nancy Guild plays these scenes beautifully, but they conflict with the story’s otherwise realistic tone.

 

(big spoiler) Although it’s all well-staged and powerfully acted, Cagliostro’s undoing under the counter-hypnotic spell of Dr. Mesmer is also difficult to accept. Cagliostro cannot avoid Mesmer’s authoritative eyes, and when commanded to tell the truth confesses like a deer caught in the headlights. Even an 18th-century kangaroo court could see that Cagliostro was ‘bewitching’ his witnesses, and now Cagliostro himself becomes an obvious puppet.

Frankly, this ‘crucial testimony’ scene seems identical to a comedy moment in the 1959 adaptation of the musical Li’l Abner. Mammy Yokum fires off a string of direct questions to the business tycoon General Bullmoose, who must say the truth because he’s just been paralyzed by Evil Eye Fleegle’s ‘double whammy truth spell.’ Bullmoose rattles off a full involuntary murder confession.

It’s still an exciting scene dynamically staged, but there’s really no difference between the confessions — Cagliostro folds meekly under Dr. Mesmer’s ‘double whammy truth spell.’

The visually sumptuous Black Magic lured more Hollywood money into European co-productions, but was perhaps too morbid and convoluted to become a huge success. The classy cast was also low on star power, and Orson-bashing was still in fashion. Instead of praising the fine performances of Nancy Guild, Akim Tamiroff, Margot Grahame and Valentina Cortese, the critics heaped scorn on Welles for yet again ‘playing God,’ bellowing his dialogue and bending people to his will simply by glaring at them.

If Welles really influenced the direction of this movie, we have to remark about his generosity to his talented supporting players, all of whom are given fine acting showcases, whereas Orson Welles remains somewhat isolated in ‘diabolical rogue’ mode. But the highly theatrical Cagliostro character is perfectly suited to the actor’s strengths. This is a great show to see Welles having the time of his life hamming up a truly colorful villain.

 


 

ClassicFlix’s Blu-ray of Black Magic is an excellent encoding of a film I’d previously seen in worn, dull TV prints. It’s touted as newly restored and what we see looks and sounds so good, perfect printing elements must have been located somewhere. The rich imagery allows us to appreciate the talent that producer Small was able to tap for pennies on the Lira: legendary art director Jean d’Eaubonne, costume desinger Vittorio Nino Novarese, camera operator Tonino Delli Colli.

Nancy Guild is a dazzling leading lady, too arresting to be overshadowed by the sumptuous costumes and the extraordinary ‘sets.’ Orson Welles’ costumes are nicely chosen as well, although his black uniform covered with (astrological?) symbols is a little confusing — I thought Cagliostro is supposed to be selling superior medicinal insights, not Merlin-like sorcery. Or maybe back in 18th century France there was little distinction between the two.

The post-production appears to have been performed back in Hollywood — the polished optical effects don’t look like Italian work, and one of the editors is Fred Feitshans, a veteran of Universal monsters and films for Edgar G. Ulmer and the Aubrey Wisberg-Jack Pollexfen team. Of special mention is the highly effective music score by Paul Sawtell, who labored in the B-Picture trenches for years and later did excellent work on films for Kurt Neumann and Irwin Allen. The Polish-born Sawtell really rises to the occasion for this classy period concoction.

The disc has some good package text but no extras, just a string of trailers for ClassicFlix’s better restored Blu-rays. That means no expert opinion on whether or not Orson is using his own nose to play Cagliostro. Welles fans will not want to pass this one up — besides being a very good movie, it’s great discussion bait to argue about the difference between a ‘Welles influence’ and Welles potentially usurping artistic control of somebody else’s movie. In this case it was likely for the better.

A Very Good Link . . . to John McElwee’s 2016 article  ‘Welles Conjures Up A Starring Lead.’

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Black Magic
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: ClassicFlix promo trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
January 30, 2022
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.