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Movie Review

The Mad Magician

Directed by John Brahm (1954)
Reviewed by MaT, added on Aug 22 2007

For a short period of time in the 50's, 3-D was all the rage. The Mad Magician was Columbia's attempt to cash in on the Warner Bros. smash hit House of Wax. They nabbed Wax's Vincent Price and screenwriter Crane Wilbur and set out with the intention of duplicating the box office bonanza. On a completely different topic, Crane Wilbur also wrote the criminally underrated noir Crime Wave directed by House of Wax director Andre De Toth and starring a then "unknown" Charles Bronson (who was also in Wax). So how does The Mad Magician stack up? Read on...

The Mad Magician stars Vincent Price as an inventor of magic tricks named Don Gallico who has had enough with other magicians getting the accolades for his inventions. Nervously, he has decided to not only create the illusions, but be the showman: Gallico the Great. Unfortunately for him, on the night of his first performance and the unveiling of his new buzz-saw trick, he is shut down by his boss, Ross Ormond. Turns out, Price signed a contract that gives Ormond ownership of "everything but the air" he breathes, which includes any and all inventions, specifically his new buzz-saw trick. Ormond refuses to release him from his contract and gives his inventions to a rival magician and business partner, The Great Rinaldi.

Compounding matters for Don is the fact that his ex-wife Claire (Eva Gabor) left him for Ormond because he couldn't support her high maintenance lifestyle. Not only has Ormond stolen all of Don's magic tricks, but he also caused Claire to leave him. Naturally, Don is a little pissed off and he takes it out on Ormond via his buzz saw blade. But that's not all there is to this story. There's a couple of subplots including a police officer investigating the mysterious deaths and a murder mystery writer who is hot on the trail of Don. See, Don's expertise isn't only in inventing magic tricks. He's also a master of disguise, able to make latex masks and prosthetics to look like anyone, and is able to mimic voices. Great stuff, right?

I thought this movie was great fun. Is it essentially the same film as House of Wax? Yes and no. You can really tell that Wilbur cut and pasted stuff directly from his Wax script into this, but it's still great to see Price do his thing. He really makes his character sympathetic at the beginning. When he finally cracks and murders Ormond (in Price's legendary overdramatic campy way), you're with him all the way. Good riddance! The ensuing scene is hilarious, and a bit suspenseful, as Price has to humorously find his bag (mistakenly grabbed by his assistant) that just so happens to have the severed head of Ormond in it before the police get their hands on it. Plus, seeing Price in various facial prosthetics never gets old.

Where the film stumbles is in the second half, where the plot slows way down and the focus is shifted from Price to the mystery writer who tries to help the cop discover Price's identity. There's some great stuff in here about the police chief not trusting this new-fangled "fingerprint technology" that is underrated, but it becomes a head scratcher when the seemingly intelligent cop can't seem to figure out that Price, well over 6 feet tall, is impersonating people much shorter than him. Did he not realize that his suspects were growing over a foot in a night?

The fact that I couldn't see this in 3-D is sad. As you'd expect, there are numerous shots of things coming straight towards the camera, but they look forced and silly when not viewing the film in its original context. Still, most of the 3-D shots, though obvious, fit within the context of the story. During one scene, Price is performing a magic show and he incorporates a water spraying wand that he shoots toward the audience. You won't find any yo-yo's bouncing repeatedly towards the screen for no apparent reason here.

I thought The Mad Magician was great and give it a high recommendation. In fact, I enjoyed it more than House of Wax and it's a great companion piece to that film. All of the acting is serviceable and you can tell everyone involved was having fun with the material. The Mad Magician is a fine film. As a piece of interesting trivia, I've read that Price broke his nose while making this film (no doubt during the final fight scene) and the reoccurring injury helped shape his unique voice.

8 / 10

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