The fictitious screen biography starring Tony Curtis as master magician and escape artist Harry Houdini begins when he is 21 years old and trying to make ends meet by performing as a "wild man" in a New York amusement house. There Curtis meets schoolgirl Leigh and after a quick courtship
they are married (Curtis and Leigh had been married in real life since 1951). Curtis incorporates Leigh into his magic act, but after seeing her husband treated shabbily by the audience she talks him into hanging up his cape and getting a normal job. While working in a lock and safe factory Curtis
learns the inner secrets of the devices, but the job bores him. At a magician's convention Curtis wins a trip to Europe by proving he can free himself from the confines of a straitjacket. The couple travels to London where Curtis wows the audiences by escaping from a variety of supposedly
"escape-proof" devices, including a jail. His tricks soon make him a major hit in Europe, but when he returns to New York his arrival is greeted with little enthusiasm. Determined to become a sensation in the US, Curtis performs dozens of dangerous stunts in public and soon his dream is fulfilled.
At the peak of his career, Curtis' mother dies and the famous magician takes two years off and submerges himself in a desperate effort to contact her spirit in the great beyond. Relying on a variety of spiritualists and mediums, Curtis spends a fortune trying to summon his mother's ghost, to no
avail. Eventually the magician learns that the mediums are nothing but con artists, and he exposes their tricks to the police and public alike. Abandoning his obsession, Curtis returns to the stage and is welcomed back warmly. Tragedy strikes, however, when, during a performance in his dangerous
and popular Water Torture Cell trick (Curtis is tied in a straitjacket and hung upside down in a tank of water with stocks around his ankles, then the tank is sealed with a variety of padlocks--the trick took at least 20 minutes to perform) his appendix bursts and though his quick-thinking
assistants smash the tank and free him, he dies in Leigh's arms.
Like the death scene, most of HOUDINI is factual hogwash (Houdini did die of advanced appendicitis, but nowhere near the stage). Historical accuracy notwithstanding, HOUDINI is a very entertaining film that was something of a change of pace for producer George Pal whose forays into the fantastic
were usually in the science fiction genre (DESTINATION MOON , WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE , THE WAR OF THE WORLDS ). Pal hired magician Dunninger to serve as technical adviser on the film. Upon her death, Mrs. Houdini willed nearly 300 of her late husband's tricks to the young magician,
so logic would dictate that Dunninger knew more about Houdini's methods than anyone alive. The film makes no attempt to reveal Houdini's tricks on screen, but tries to present an accurate re-creation of them. Pal also capitalized on the public's fascination for married Hollywood stars Curtis and
Leigh, whose shining faces appeared in hundreds of newspapers and magazines, by casting them in their first film together. HOUDINI moves along at a rapid clip, with dozens of tricks performed for the cameras. While the film may be short on character (Houdini was something of a tyrannical
egomanic), the episode detailing the magician's attempts at contacting his dead mother and his subsequent expose of mediums was well founded in fact and quite fascinating. In 1976 a more accurate version of Houdini's life was presented in a fine made-for-TV film starring Paul Michael Glaser
entitled THE GREAT HOUDINIS.
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- Review: The fictitious screen biography starring Tony Curtis as master magician and escape artist Harry Houdini begins when he is 21 years old and trying to make ends meet by performing as a "wild man" in a New York amusement house. There Curtis meets schoolgirl L… (more)