There’s a point in every movie about magic where someone makes the following statement: “Magic doesn’t work in TV or in the movies because the camera can’t be misdirected. It sits silently watching everything, not allowing the magician to use the tricks of the trade to successfully pull off their illusion.” Of course, that’s the rub with all stage productions. What works in front of a live audience, a group of beleaguered and gullible patrons, simply doesn’t succeed once it’s recorded and replayed. With such scrutiny comes knowledge one shouldn’t possess. Sure, some of the allure is there, but for the most part, the sense of wonder is turned into a simple shoulder shrug. Still, Hollywood has tried on many occasions to use the practice as a means of making their own motion picture enchantment. Sometimes, the profession is portrayed. In other instances, magic is made into something real and relatable, a gift given to one from some unknown source.
A perfect example of the former is the newly released hit from the Summer of 2013, Now You See Me (available on DVD and Blu-ray). In fact, that film got us thinking about the 10 Greatest Movies about Magic and Magicians. Of course, said compendium is not without a caveat. First up, let’s get this out of the way right up front. Harry Potter deserves his own category and list. The boy wizard who turned magic and mysticism into a wondrous worldwide phenomenon (via author J. K. Rowling’s classic novels) was featured in eight films. If we included them, they’d bump out several of the other titles we wanted to discuss here. So Harry gets his more than honorable mention and we’re done dealing with him. Similarly, we did push the boundaries a bit on what we would include, sans the hallowed Halls of Hogwarts. In a couple of cases, the magic element is a minor point in an otherwise obvious bit of storytelling. Still, without that facet, these films wouldn’t be so interesting.
So without further ado, here are our choices, beginning with one of the most bizarre examples of the sleight of hand subgenre:
Famed splatter master Herschell Gordon Lewis delved into the world of weird prestidigitation with this oddball effort featuring a magician who could make his horror show tricks (involving death and vivisection) “real.” In essence, Montag hypnotizes his targets, puts then through their gruesome, Grand Guignol paces, and then, with a snap of his fingers, the bloodletting truly begins. With a selection of stomach churning stage sequences to keep audiences poised in front of their barf bags, and a fascinatingly effective turn by Ray Sager as Montag, this remains one of the exploitation icon’s very best. The remake is merely average.
That comedy genius, Jerry Lewis, plays the Great Wooley, a less than successful magician entertaining the troops as part of a USO show. When he gets in trouble with the headliner, he ends up befriending a Japanese orphan and the duo spend the rest of the film trying to find a way to turn tragedy into comedy. As one of Lewis’ lesser works, this one is more oriented around the maudlin than it is our main man or his manic magic act. Still, the storyline is so simple and the message so likable that it ends up a winner.
James Franco found box office gold as the title character in this Sam Raimi reimagining of the classic L. Frank Baum fairytales. Gone are most of the recognizable characters from the Wizard we all know and love. In their place is another collection of wonderful entities as well as a welcome battle between two wannabe witches. Franco does get a chance to use his sleight of hand skills to save the day, but the real magic here is in the universe created by Baum, Raimi, the various visual effects artists working behind the scenes.
Woody Allen’s last legitimately funny film was a short subject as part of this Martin Scorsese/Francis Ford Coppola celebration of all things Big Apple. In his story, his nagging mother disappears - literally - while participating in a Coney Island magic show. The magician has no idea what happened…until, said nag is suddenly seen in the sky, commenting and critiquing everything Allen and his fiance Mia Farrow do. There are several seminal scenes here, including ones toward the beginning with Mae Questel (as Mom) derides her son and his various personal flaws. The magic show is a mere catalyst for some great comedy.
Riding high on the success of Mary Poppins, the House of Mouse decided to make another bit of British fantasy into a full blown live action musical. This time around, they focused on a group of war orphans, the weird old woman who reluctantly agrees to take them in, and her eventual unmasking as a witch in training. With the help of a has-been magician peddling spells via a correspondence school, the group goes on several wild adventures. Though dated now, the movie won an Academy Award for its amazing F/X work, mostly revolving around a finale featuring reanimated suits of armor battling invading Nazis.