Try, try, try to understand, he’s a magic man.
Harry Houdini. The name is synonymous with magic. But Houdini really wasn’t a magician — he was an illusionist, who at great risk to his own life, delighted as well as frightened the heck out of his audiences. Harry Houdini is the definition of the “American Dream,” a man who came from abject poverty, and through hard work and sacrifice, achieved success that most of us only dream of. Even though he’s been dead for more than 80 years, he still has the ability to inspire other magic men like David Blaine and Chris Angel. His life was not only ripe for a movie, his life was like a movie; and in the television miniseries Houdini we get a fantastical look at a fascinating man.
Houdini is a two part mini-series that originally aired on the A&E network. It is a dramatic and sometimes salacious account of the life and times of the famous illusionist Harry Houdini.
You know you’re dealing with an icon when his or her name can be used as a common expression, as in “Man, he pulled a Houdini on me.” Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874. Before becoming an inspiration to legions, as a boy Houdini was inspired by a French magician named Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, who is considered to be the father of the modern day illusionist.
Houdini is a two-part mini-series that originally aired on the A&E network during Labor Day weekend, and is based on the book Houdini: A Mind in Chains: a Psychoanalytic Portrait, By Bernard C. Meyer, M.D. It stars Academy Award winner Adrian Brody (The Pianist) in a spectacular performance as Mr. Houdini. This two-disc Blu-ray covers Houdini’s life from childhood as a poor first generation American, through the height of his fame, ending with his untimely death.
While his fans thrill at the sight of him dangling from a building in a straitjacket, or diving into frigid waters while handcuffed, his wife Bess (Kristen Connolly, The Cabin in the Woods) is in constant fear that her risk taking husband will die in one of his crazy stunts. Bess feels Harry’s career is first and foremost, while their marriage comes in a distant second. Houdini is always busy performing in one show after another with Beth as is his constant companion; but all she really wants to do is settle down in a place they can call home. On top of all that, Bess is also in steep competition with another woman — none other than Houdini’s dear mother Cecilia (Eszter Onodi). Harry is her hero, she believes in him like no one else; and he is fiercely devoted to her. But once the lights are dim and the fawning public is gone, we see a Houdini that is insecure, a man in constant fear of losing the love lavished on him by a finicky public; no death defying feat is scarier to him than that.
Some of the commentary I read online about Houdini complain that it is far too sensationalized, showing things that never really happened, or didn’t happen in the way the series says it does. But come on, what would you expect from a film about the life of The Great Houdini? His whole career was sensationalistic; he was an illusionist after all. In fact, the biopic isn’t even pretending to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. The very first frame of the film reads, “What you are about to see is FACT. It is also FICTION. We defy you to tell the difference…” Alright, alright, alright, this is gonna be fun. We are taken on a wild ride that was Houdini’s life, and, even with some exaggerations, it doesn’t change the fact that this is a beautifully done film. No need for the naysayers to worry, audiences are sophisticated enough to know that any time a movie says its ‘Based on a True Story,’ filmmakers often take some artistic license in telling their vision of the tale. Houdini does not stray too far from the truth, it gets the main points of the escape artist’s life correct, and that is more than enough.
Adrien Brody is fantastic! His career after his award winning performance in The Pianist, seems to have sputtered. For whatever reasons he hasn’t been able to land the good roles that would make him the Hollywood A-lister that I think he deserves to be. Sometimes you catch that brass ring only once, and after that, it becomes illusive. I suppose it’s better to have reached it once, than to never to have reached it at all. Nonetheless, Brody gives his all in this role; he is Houdini inside and out, believable in every aspect.
The entire cast of Houdini is spectacular, along with Connolly and Onodi, Evan Jones (8 Mile), is solid as Jim Collins, Houdini’s good friend, assistant, and the genius behind many of Houdini’s greatest stunts. Director Uli Edel takes a fascinating life, and brings it a richness and depth that someone like Houdini deserves. Houdini is a man who defies description in his exploits, but when all is said and done, Houdini is a lot like us; someone who wants to escape a painful past at all costs, but unlike us, he breaks away in a manner that most of us could never imagine.
Lionsgate’s release of Houdini (Blu-ray) is presented in 1.78:1/1080p transfer. The colors are dark and rich, the images crisp and clear. Things look and feel like turn of the century America. The clear DTS 5.1 Master Audio track allows for dialogue that is so easy to hear, along with a subtle but wonderful soundtrack. Extras include an extended version of the mini-series, which I watched and can’t imagine what was edited out. Also a digital HD copy, trailers, and four behind the scenes featurettes.
Was there some sleight of hand used in the making of Houdini? Sure there was, but it is a spectacle worth every bit of the 174 minutes it took to tell the tale of a man that was as extraordinary in life as his legend is in death.
Presto-Chango — Not Guilty.
2014, MPI, 324 minutes, NR (2014)
VIDEO: 1.78:1 (1080p) AUDIO: DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English) SUBTITLES: English (SDH)
EXTRAS: Extended Edition, Featurettes, Digital Copy ACCOMPLICES: IMDB