The Mad Magician
1954 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 72 min. / Street Date January 10, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: Vincent Price, Mary Murphy, Eva Gabor, John Emery, Donald Randolph, Lenita Lane, Patrick O’Neal, Jay Novello, Corey Allen, Conrad Brooks, Tom Powers, Lyle Talbot.
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Editor: Grant Whytock
Original Music: Arthur Lange, Emil Newman
Written by: Crane Wilbur
Produced by: Bryan Foy
Directed by John Brahm
Twilight Time, bless ’em, hands us another treat to go with their 3-D discs of Man in the Dark, Miss Sadie Thompson and Harlock Space Pirate 3-D — and this time it’s a fun bit of 1950s horror — with a hot pair of short subject extras.
There have been plenty of theories as to why horror films became scarce after WW2; it’s as if the U.S. film industry took a ten-year break from the supernatural, and partly replaced werewolves and vampires with prehistoric monsters and creatures from outer space. We’re told that a new generation of fans was born when Universal released their horror archives to TV in the late 1950s.
Some horror movies were made between 1946 and 1957, of course, interesting isolated titles but almost no real supernatural fantasies. The biggest hit helped launch the 3-D craze in 1953 — Warners’ House of Wax with Vincent Price. A remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum, it offered macabre murders in place of supernatural goings-on, but is still technically a horror effort. Producer Bryan Foy teamed with the prolific writer Crane Wilbur for that hit; although their next-released picture was Crime Wave, it had been filmed two years before and shelved. Foy, Wilbur and cameraman Bert Glennon immediately inked with Edward Small for a quickie Vincent Price follow-up to House of Wax, The Mad Magician. The similarities are obvious from the start. Vincent Price plays a frustrated artist in a period setting, who murders his employer and then uses disguises to keep murdering. Two elaborate, morbid mechanical devices figure in the horrors; Vincent’s murder scheme eventually implodes, thanks to a quick-thinking dame.
In the 1880s magic-act inventor Don Gallico (Price) is prevented from becoming a performing magician by Ross Ormond (Donald Randolph), who has a contract that says he owns and controls anything that Price creates. Gallico’s elaborate sawmill trick, called ‘The Lady and the Buzz Saw’ goes instead to the hammy magician The Great Rinaldi (John Emery). Unhinged by the injustice — Ormond also ‘stole’ Gallico’s wife Claire (Eva Gabor) — Don goes on a murder spree. He covers up his crimes with elaborate makeup impersonations – he successfully passes himself off as Ormond and Rinaldi when necessary. Young friend Karen Lee (Mary Murphy) has no clue what’s going on, but her detective boyfriend Lt. Alan Bruce (Patrick O’Neal) goes out on a limb to try to identify the killer. Alan uses fingerprint evidence — which isn’t yet considered decisive proof in criminal investigations.
The Mad Magician is a well-judged but fairly low-budget thriller, with few surprises but plenty of interesting moments. The sensitive direction of John Brahm (Hangover Square & The Lodger) makes the most of a lively group of actors, but is a little light when dealing with violent scenes. The murderous Gallico saws off a man’s head in the middle of his shop, which one would think would paint the entire room with blood. Nothing outrageous is shown at all, not even a severed head. In the film’s clumsiest development, that head almost falls into the hands of the police, a scene that could have provided Price with a delicious Tell-Tale Heart moment. For some crazy reason the sequence has no conclusion – when the tension begins to rise we just skip to the next scene. Later on, a victim is almost sacrificed in another crazy stage apparatus, a cremation chamber with an automatic feed table. We’re supposed to accept that Gallico’s nightly act (twice on Sundays?) shows a living person being turned to ash right in front of an audience’s eyes.
[We never get to ask how impractical this is — if every performance results in the destruction of an expensive dummy, ticket prices would have to be rather steep for Gallico to break even.]
Another set-piece scene in The Mad Magician is borrowed directly from John Brahm’s earlier Hangover Square. Gallico disposes of one of his victims by tossing it atop a bonfire, in this case for a college homecoming rally. It provides a bit of spectacle in a movie with little action.
Price was not happy that he had to play so much of House of Wax wearing a stiff mask rendering him incapable of facial emotions. As if to compensate The Mad Magician gives him multiple roles to play. He’s always the center of attention. The make-ups are very good, but the trick seems to be to give the two actors that Price’s Gallico impersonates — Donald Randolph and hammy John Emery — exaggerated features and facial hair to begin with. When Price wears their odd beards and bushy eyebrows, the effect is just good enough so that the other actors don’t look silly when the illusion works. Price speaks in the other actors’ voices as well, which helps with the illusion. Maybe it shouldn’t be called an illusion, exactly, but rather a successful contrivance. Since the other men have completely different body shapes and sizes, the fact that this crucial gag works at all is an accomplishment.
Director Brahm was always good with actors; although not as sensitive as Jacques Tourneur, the performances he directs are usually well above par. By this picture Vincent Price hasn’t yet found that hamming up his horror thriller roles produces good results, which leaves Don Gallico as an interestingly troubled hero-villain. Although being cheated and having his no-good wife desert him for a richer man doesn’t feel like enough to motivate the grisly killings, Price works up plenty energy for the character. Roughly speaking, the basic setup remind us of silent Lon Chaney / Tod Browning movies in a theatrical or circus setting. In pictures like West of Zanzibar, the Chaney character was forever committing horrible crimes to avenge dirty deeds done in the past.
Gallico hasn’t the twisted, incestuous depth of a Chaney / Browning villain, who also often extended sick punishments to the next generation of unfaithful women. I’d guess that the Production Code’s firm ban on sordid plotlines of this kind did a lot to discourage the production of horror movies in the ‘fifties. Pictures like The Mad Magician showed bloodless, gore-free slaughter, while outrageous tales of carnage flourished in horror comics, at least until the Kefauver crackdown.
How does Magician shape up as a 3-D feature? I think that the depth illusions are excellent. Brahm continually finds nice angles, including many overhead shots, and places items in the foreground to give scenes a full feeling of dimensionality. As this is ‘organic’ 3-D, carefully tweaked, the characters seem to have dimensionality, as opposed to looking like moving cutouts in a diorama box. The interior sets are rarely filmed head-on, so we can perceive depth in the background as well. Bert Glennon’s deep focus photography is easy on the eyes. Where the compositions want us to focus, the 3-D effect converges as well. Yes, in several scenes objects are tossed in our faces. The paddleball sidewalk tout returns from House of Wax, and a program hawker (Lyle Talbot!) is rigged with a trick arm that telescopes toward the camera.
Vincent Price is fun to watch, as ever. Because he doesn’t rave, roll his eyes or exaggerate his speeches, fans are going to consider his playing here subdued. John Emery’s fake Italian performer from New Jersey is an appropriate broad ham, while Jay Novello is likeable as a nervous husband. Eva Gabor is gorgeous and cruel, but the character isn’t given enough attention to make that much of an effect. All her crimes are far in the past and Gallico says that he’s already forgiven her.
The only actor given a bad deal is the beautiful Mary Murphy — her Karen is simply a generic girl who screams every so often. Ms. Murphy had just been a sensation in The Wild One with Marlon Brando, and Harry Cohn should have been offering her better parts by now. Perhaps this year he was too obsessed with Kim Novak, but Murphy’s roles went on a slide and ordinary genre parts soon gave way to TV work. She should have been given an award, just for the moment when she asks Brando, “What are you rebelling against?” In The Mad Magician she’s mostly set dressing.
I didn’t immediately recognize Patrick O’Neal as the detective – it’s his first feature film, way before he established his cynical creep persona. O’Neal would stick mostly with stage and TV work for years before being showcased in a couple of Otto Preminger movies, starting with The Cardinal. In this show, smiling gracefully as the handsome male detective, he barely resembles himself.
It’s interesting to see actor-director Corey Allen (Rebel Without a Cause, Private Property) in his first bit part as a stagehand. Perhaps the best ensemble player in the show is Crane Wilbur’s actress wife Lenita Lane. She doesn’t have many credits, yet is splendid as the nosy landlady who doubles as an author of mysteries. Ms. Lane plays the role almost as would Natalie Schafer, but has her personal sparkle. The film’s loudest scene has both her and Mary Murphy performing a screaming duet, yelling for help out a window.
A major Added Treat are a pair of beautifully remastered Three Stooges short subjects from 1953, Pardon My Backfire and another we’ve seen far too often in wretched anaglyphic presentations, Spooks! Stooges fans will be delighted with the brain-curdling level of comedy here, which presents cruel and witless slapstick as its own reason for being. In the first show the car repair boys deal with some bank robbers and their moll — the whole show is about sticking tools, knives and blowtorch flames into the camera. It all looks very painful, and the actors even allow themselves to be set on fire.
The more famous Spooks! has elements that can’t lose: a buxom girl is strapped to a surgery table while mad scientist Philip Van Zant waxes nutty, and an enthused monster gorilla (Steve Calvert) watches from an iron jail cell. No, the gorilla does not molest the girl, as this is a family film, you perverts. We instead get healthy skull- smashings, flamethrower- scorchings and gross hypodermic needles stuck into our eyeballs. Spooks originally screened with Columbia’s 3-D Technicolor feature Fort Ti, and contains a couple of dialogue references to its co-feature. The 3-D effects on these (properly widescreen) shows are excellent. The psychological effect does indeed make me want to seek out The Simpsons’ legendary ‘Three Stooges Ward.’
The Twilight Time 3-D Blu-ray of The Mad Magician is a must-get for 3-D fans. The basic encoding is excellent and the 3-D mastering even better — as I said above, the on-screen characters seem like ’rounded’ objects inside a spatial environment. Bert Glennon’s sharp lighting helps with the illusions as well. The images are rock solid and I saw no hint of image flaws.
All of the disc content can be viewed flat as well as in 3-D.
A few shots are simply flat, indicating that Columbia repurposed them from older, flat movies rather than fork out the cash to restage some audience shots or a period street scene. The 3-D rig gives itself away in shots with bright candles and flame — a slight ‘ghost’ image is added as the light bounces around the optics of two different lenses.
In addition to the Three Stooges short subjects, Twilight Time comes up with some bright new extras. Master of Fright!: Conjuring The Mad Magician is a pleasing featurette on this lesser-known horror offering. David Del Valle and Steven Peros provide an entertaining and informative commentary that covers the expected bases but offers more as well. Peros makes a good case for the film looking much better in its proper aspect ratio. We hear quite a bit about the waning state of 3-D in 1954. Del Valle has a number of surprise anecdotes to dish out. Young Patrick O’Neal ignored the stunt director and broke Vincent Price’s nose, hitting him with a real table instead of a breakaway prop. We’re reminded that Price wasn’t in vogue in the ’50s with the rise of Method actors, but he found the perfect acting niche for his theatrical talents. He didn’t really become typed with horror roles until his William Castle movies. Del Valle met director John Brahm and offers a nice analysis of his fine film The Locket. I also liked the commentary’s assessment of actor John Emery – an actor well chosen. Emery plays his magician Rinaldi so broadly, he makes Vincent Price seem nicely restrained.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes catch plenty of loopy harmonies in The Mad Magician that I missed; it’s good to know that she found the same spirit of fun in this early Vincent Price horror show. The insert foldout carries a large portrait of Price disguised as Rinaldi. Minus a long nose, it looks to me like a parody of José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac.
I hope the momentum for remastering vintage 3-D doesn’t falter, as there are still plenty of worthy titles out there. A release of Paramount / Batjac / Warners’ Hondo in 3-D is way overdue. Home video could wait – the novelty of seeing The Duke in 3-D would probably sell just as many theatrical tickets. Why aren’t TCM’s special theater engagements going for titles like that? — Hondo was made ready for Real-D years ago.
Thanks to Mike Ballew, Tom Weaver and Steve Peros for corrections.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mad Magician 3-D Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good and Fun
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, audio commentary by David Del Valle and Steven Peros, Master of Fright!: Conjuring The Mad Magician; trailer, Two 3D/2D 1953 Comedy Shorts Starring The Three Stooges, Pardon My Backfire and Spooks!, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 110, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson