Sleight of Hand: The Magic of Deception

Ladies and gentleman, I would like for you to close your eyes a moment and try to visualise a pair of ordinary boxes in front you. Whilst we are unable to see inside these boxes, for the sake of this hypothetical exercise allow me to offer a clue by disclosing what is written upon each. Box number one states in bold letters: The Magician’s Box of Tricks, whilst the other is labelled: The Tricks of the Filmmaker.

And now, please keep your undivided attention upon each of these objects as I make two become one right before your very eyes

Since the advent of commercial cinema at the close of the 19th century, the medium of film has proven instrumental in it’s role as one of the magician’s most trusty assistants. On the other side of the coin, the art of filmmaking would not be where it is today if it weren’t for the modern-day magician, illusionist or spiritualist.

Contemporary society’s fixation with the illusion has certainly bordered on the obsessive over the decades. And if you were to take one look at the demand for magic shows in just about any major city, then it would suggest there to be no immediate sign of slowing down any time soon either. Equally so, with this growing phenomenon of course has come the paradoxical attempts to debunk the magic trick through rational scientific explanation.

It is true that some of the industry’s most revered magicians and illusionists, including the great Harry Houdini himself fiercely opposed the mystical notion of their work being referred to as ‘magic’, and spent much of their lives trying to expose those that felt otherwise as impostors and charlatans.

Houdini tryptich

‘(Houdini) was so full of his subject, and so voluble with his stories of the spook racket, that fascinating incidents and anecdotes kept tumbling out… but he got over his main thesis: that professional mediums who take money for their efforts are chiselers pure and simple’.

-Excerpt from ‘Houdini, the Man Who Walked Through Walls’, by William Lindsay Gresham

Being that the public’s widespread enchantment of, and it’s unrelenting appetite for the paranormal was a surefire money-spinner, it was only natural that magic would see it’s progression through the entertainment industry’s colourful evolution from circuses and sideshows, to the vaudeville theatres and stages, and onto cinema screens the world over.

Early pioneers of the art, like Frenchman Georges Méliès and his Star Film Company, and those also under inventor Thomas Edison’s newly established Edison Manufacturing Company, used the new medium to showcase their greatest illusions through the optical trickery that film now allowed them to exploit. This unlocked a new and exciting world of possibilities for the magician at the time, who used juxtaposed imagery, special effects and revolutionary editing techniques to bring their tricks to life on the big screen, and enabled them to wow more people than their predecessors had ever been able to do prior.

Between them, the pair were responsible for producing upwards of 1700 films (mainly shorts and experimental films, but not excluding feature-length films) within the period of 1894-1913… certainly no small feat by any account. In fact, at the turn of the 20th century in the year of 1900, the Edison Manufacturing Co.’s catalogue alone contained a string of magic-inspired films, including Ching Ling Foo Outdone, The Clown and the Alchemist, Congress of Nations, and Hooligan Assists the Magician.

Méliès in particular used the camera as an extension to the stage, where he had perfected such ‘tricks’ as the disappearing act. But the grand illusionist-cum-cinema pioneer and entrepreneur took the art to another level with some of the earliest known examples of multiple exposure, image splicing, dissolves, time-lapse photography and hand-coloured frames. His films produced in the earlier period of his career, including The Magician (1898), The Four Troublesome Heads (1898) and The Magician’s Cavern (1901) are all wonderful examples of using the camera to create the effect of illusion, nowadays easily accessible for viewing through the public domain

Regarded by many as the father of special effects, Charlie Chaplin once described Méliès as ‘an alchemist of light…’

‘If the Lumiere’s invented cinema, another Frenchman, Georges Méliès invented “the movies”, by using the medium to tell stories…’

-Roger Ebert

Meanwhile, across the channel here in Britain around the same time, a nifty electrician and an amateur magician would team up to produce several innovative short ‘trick films’ from the first London film studio that they set up in Muswell Hill in 1898.

Despite being somewhat lesser known than the aforementioned French and American pioneers, Robert W. Paul and Walter R. Booth’s many early shorts were equally revolutionary for the way in which they utilised jump-cuts, superimposition, scale models and hand-drawn sets to take their illusions from the stage to the screen. The first camera that Georges Méliès used was actually assembled and built by Paul, who coincidentally also invented the modern camera dolly. The pair would also use the medium to reveal to the audience the step-by-step methods behind some of their greatest tricks and illusions.

Most notably, one of the pair’s last collaborations, their 1906 short Is Spiritualism a Fraud? aimed to expose the fake medium of the day by recreating a staged séance and highlighting the way in which the mentalist creates the illusion of reading minds or reaching the deceased.

This month, we’ve compiled a loose list of films throughout cinema history that have depicted the magician, the illusionist, the spiritualist and the mentalist, and we look at how our perception of the magician as mystic spell caster or performance artist has developed and changed over the decades.

But being that this is also our special milestone 50th published Privilege of Legends feature, we’ve reached out to London magician Christopher Howell to get an exclusive peak into the performer’s box of tricks. We put to him some questions on the craft and found out how a new generation is embracing magic, how digital entertainment is helping to reinvigorate the public’s enthusiasm with the live show, and how people still contact him with strange requests for him to perform ‘magic’ on others…

1. Why in your opinion do you think that magic continues to capture our hearts and imagination?

‘I think magic answers to basic desires in the human condition… Imagine how it would be for example to change something in the world with a click of your fingers, to instantly transform something about yourself, to appear somewhere else, to know what people are thinking, be invincible or to escape situations. We’ve all yearned for and imagined these things. Magic’s wonder continues to capture us because it makes all these things appear to be possible. What would you do if you had magical powers for a day? For sure you have some good answers’.

2. Do you believe that the public’s perception of magic has changed over the years, and if so in what way?

‘How the public perceives magic is always a product of the time. We can look at three different periods to see how the public has regarded magic differently. Let’s start in the sixteenth century, when the first magic book, Reginald Scot’s ‘Discoverie of Witchcraft’ (1584) was published. It was an exposé to reveal the tricks behind, and debunk the belief in what many people then considered to be witchcraft. Curiously, the formal study of magic grew out of this book, published to show it’s not real.

Now, let’s skip forward to the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century to the Golden Age of magic. At that time magic was one of the most popular forms of entertainment packing Vaudeville theatres and music halls on both sides of the Atlantic and with shows touring the world over. The public’s imagination was lit up in this tumultuous time of social, industrial and scientific change. There was a visceral excitement about what’s possible, and magic played right into this. Magic’s golden age was brought to an end by cinema when the variety theatres emptied out in favour of a new kind of magic that was found on the silver screen.

Magic has, nonetheless, continued to endure and adapt. Today in the early twenty-first century magic is of course performed not only on stage but it appears in films and other media as well as being a prolific form of close-up entertainment. In our contemporary sceptical age, where people know neither politicians, nor media or advertising can be taken at face value, magic too is embraced as an entertaining diversion. I think live magic is also popular these days in spite of the abundance of digital entertainment precisely because it is not digital’.

3. Do you think there is an ethical line that should not be crossed when concerning the magic trick or illusion?

‘It can be very easy to convince some people that magic is real. I’m still impressed when I receive occasional emails from some person (usually in a faraway country) who found me online, requesting me to ‘do magic on someone’. I can explain point-blank to these people that what I do is a deception of their senses intended for entertainment and they will choose not to believe me. Their desire for real magic short-circuits sound logic. One of the most likely areas of magic for the question of ethics to arise is mentalism, where it can be quite easy to convince someone that you’ve gotten into their head… so there are certainly ethical lines that should not be crossed in regard to this’.

4. Generally speaking, what, if anything would you most like your audience to go away with at the end of your act?

‘Sleepless nights maybe? (Just kidding…)

That’s an important question for a magician because it directly informs the material you choose to perform and the way you perform it. My answer varies depending on the show I’m doing. When I perform my ‘Parlour Show’ which is a contemporary take on a classic format of magic performance, I’d like to give the audience a sense of wonder and possibility. My act ‘Norvil & Josephine’ is a sort of reinvented Vaudeville style show, and with this show I’d love my audience to leave with a sense of happiness and escape into their imagination. Totally different still, the intention built into my theatrical ‘Séance’ show is to give the audience an awareness of how easily we deceive ourselves. Some magicians just set out to ‘fool’ the audience in some strange battle of wits, but for me it’s much more interesting if other intentions are at play instead’.

See more on Christopher Howell here.

As the moving picture industry began to gather momentum through the profitable silent era and on into the early talkies (due, in part to the experimental pioneers mentioned above who helped to establish the medium as an art), the audience had been rapidly migrating in large numbers from the vaudeville stage shows and theatre halls for their weekly dose of entertainment, and over to the new cinematheques that were popping up in major cities the world over.

Still, the public’s undying infatuation with the strange and the otherworldly was continuing to drive the narrative arcs for many of these films. Additionally, such performers and illusionists of the era like Harry Kellar, Carter the Great and Howard Thurston only amplified the romantic enigma of the magician through such ‘tricks’ as the levitation illusion, not to mention their various claims to be able to conjure spirits, read minds or reach the deceased.

It was only a matter of time before the major Hollywood studios tapped into this with sensationalised stories, like MGM’s wonderfully macabre horror The Magician in 1926, or such pre-code paranormal films as Supernatural (Paramount Pictures-1933) and Night of Terror (Columbia Pictures-1933). These films attempted to get under the skin of it’s audiences with darker themed plots centring around mysticism, hypnotism and the occult. They played into the public’s fear of the unexplained with nightmarish scenarios of innocents possessed, souls corrupted, and spirits tormented.

By the 1940‘s, the metamorphosis of the modern magician coincided with a renewed brand of fierce criticism, as those that endeavoured to find logical or scientific explanations for their ‘magic’ became more organised and vocal. Such regulatory bodies as S.A.M, or The Society of American Magicians, which was founded by the great illusionist and escapist Harry Houdini sought not only to acknowledge and award those for outstanding achievements in the art of showmanship and magic, but also to act as a moral and ethical compass for those that aimed to use the craft in order to deceive or swindle the public.

Houdini’s signed card for The Society of American Magicians, or S.A.M

‘The purpose of this society shall be to advance, elevate, and preserve magic as a performing art, to promote harmonious fellowship throughout the world of magic, and to maintain and improve ethical standards in the field of magic’.

– The Society of American Magicians (Core Values and Beliefs)

From bitter rivalries between touring magicians who tried to discredit or publicly shame their counterparts, to ensuing legal battles between those that attempted to patent tricks in their act, more and more the industry was beginning to reveal it’s thorny, less glamourous side. Furthermore, a new wave of ‘anti-spiritualists’ and sceptics sought to expose the fraudulent mediums that were popping up all over the major cities of Europe and North America.

Naturally, this tumultuous climate was ideal for the novelist or screenwriter to forge the pulp of their stories, and from this backdrop came some of cinema’s most layered and psychological takes on the modern day magician, like 20th Century Fox’s 1947 retelling of William Lindsay Gresham’s outstanding novel Nightmare Alley, and the moody, low-budget gem The Amazing Mr. X, produced by Eagle-Lion Films in 1948.

Both films serve as thoroughly entertaining but starkly discomfiting commentaries on the way we allow ourselves to be tricked, and leave the audience questioning the sometimes ambiguously foggy ethical line between deceit and illusion.

‘If one can take any moral value out of Nightmare Alley it would seem to be that a terrible retribution is the inevitable consequence for he who would mockingly attempt to play god…’

-The New York Times

In The Palm of Your Hand 1951
Roberto Gavaldón directed over 50 films in Mexico, including this noir gem, all too often missed from discussion by film scholars and critics. 

Much in the same vein as the hitherto mentioned Hollywood pictures above is the Mexican film En la palma de tu mano, or In the Palm of Your Hand, directed by Roberto Gavaldón, and released in 1951. The film features a wealthy widow who becomes the unknowing target of blackmail by an opportunistic conman posing as a mystic and fortune teller.

Attempting to ride the wave of success from the Warner Brothers 3D thriller House of Wax just two years prior, Columbia Pictures released the camp horror The Mad Magician in 1954, starring the devilishly brilliant Vincent Price as ‘Gallico the Great’, an illusionist whose off-stage feud with rival ‘The Great Rinaldi’ (played by John Emery) spirals into a deadly game of trickery, duplicity and eventually murder. 

The Mad Magician also manages to touch on the (somewhat comedic) malevolence of the competing artists, as they fight over the patent for what each consider to be their very own most prized and daring trick: the buzz-saw illusion.  

Houdini 2 (1953)
Over the years, the life of Harry Houdini has been the inspiration for much of pop culture entertainment, including comics, novels, television, & film. 

The year 1953 also saw the release of Paramount Pictures’ loosely based, but mostly fictionalised account of the great illusionist and escape artist’s life, the Technicolor biopic Houdini, starring Tony Curtis in the lead role as Harry Houdini.

However, for the more intricately woven psychological and philosophical takes on the subject of the magician, and his or her impact and affect on society, look no further than two of the master auteurs for their takes on the craft. Without a doubt, Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 Swedish film Ansiktet, or The Face (also released as The Magician), and Orson Welles’ clever 1973 docu-drama F for Fake are equally worthy examples of utilising cinema to invoke discussion and challenge our way of thinking.

Channelling inspiration from British writer G.K Chesterton’s play, Magic (Bergman even staged a version of Magic in a Stockholm theatre early on in his career), Ansiktet stars the writer/director’s staple-protagonist, Max von Sydow as touring magician Albert Emanuel Vogler, whose claims of supernatural abilities are questioned and challenged by the various townsfolk of a small rural village.

‘A thoughtful (and too-long underrated) portrait of a man who is part faker, part genius…’

-Leonard Maltin

What, in our opinion actually constitutes veritable authenticity? Can there ever exist a level of genius in the art of forgery?

This and other noteworthy and particularly relevant questions are put to the audience in Orson Welles’ outstanding colour presentation– part fictional film, part documentary, perhaps best described as a poignant social commentary, packaged to the public in the form of a film essay.

F for Fake poses as investigative chronicler, recounting the careers of an infamous art forger and disgraced ‘hoax-biographer’, with Welles himself featuring in much of the film alongside Croatian actress and partner in his later life, Oja Kodar. Welles purposely and ever-so masterfully blurs the line between truth and fiction, and between genuine and fraudulent, leaving the viewer to question their preconception of what (if anything) is actually legitimately and divinely original or true.

In more recent years, a trio of films all released in 2006, including two period pieces both set at the end of the 19th century, helped to rekindle the longstanding love affair the public has had with the stage magician or illusionist.

Based upon Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel of the same name, The Prestige centres around a pair of daring escape artists in London with an obsession to out-perform the other that leads them both down a cataclysmic road to conflict, and inevitably disaster.

Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, on the other hand, tells the fictional story of touring Viennese magician Eisenheim the Illusionist, with it’s narrative rooted more in the relationship the protagonist fights to uphold with his childhood romance, the Duchess von Teschen.

Perhaps more forgettable than the other films on this list is Woody Allen’s light-hearted romantic comedy Scoop, featuring Allen himself as magician ‘The Great Splendini’. Better described as a whimsical murder-mystery film, Scoop is disappointingly all-too often graceless and clumsy in parts, and only serves as a brief mention among the other more notable films touched on above.

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