HOUDINI, which was filmed under the title, Believe, stars Johnathon Schaech as Houdini, Stacy Edwards as Bess, and Mark Ruffalo as Theo (Hardeen). Shimada also makes a cameo appearance as a street magician. Production design is magnificent, as is the musical score, and while not the best of the Houdini biopics, it has much to recommend it.
Notably, HOUDINI is the first Houdini biography to tackle and dramatize the issue of Houdini’s egotism. Certainly in this way Schaech’s manic Houdini is far different from Tony Curtis or Paul Michael Glaser. Of course, it also makes him less likable and more alienating. But as Bessie says in the film, “I fell in love with Ehrich Weiss. I put up with Houdini.”
Hardeen gets a larger role in HOUDINI than he's ever had in any biopic. But as with Houdini's relationship with his mother, the filmmakers twist the brothers relationship for their own dramatic needs. Here Houdini creates "Hardeen" as a way to repress his brother's own magic ambitions -- "It would be just too confusing; two Houdinis," Harry tells him. This film also sets up a class division between the two, with Houdini performing before royalty and Hardeen performing at a Union Hall. But it is nice that part of the dramatic arc for Theo in this film is to forgive his older brother for stealing the spotlight, and it's effective when he "exposes" the final Houdini seance just as Bess is starting to believe.
But the film keeps the pedal to the metal in its depiction of Houdini’s stunts, eager to show Houdini as the original king of “extreme” (is that still a thing?). Standouts are the suspended straightjacket escape and a rather flamboyant depiction of the Milk Can. Jim Bentley and Jim Thompson are credited as magic consultants.
Densham explains his ending by saying, “Well, you can look at it three ways: Either he dreamed it, or she dreamed it, or it really happened. I have my own theory, but I’d prefer not to say.”
HOUDINI was nominated for three Emmys: Outstanding Hairstyling for a Miniseries, Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries, and Outstanding Makeup for a Miniseries. Judy Crown won the Emmy for Hairstyling at the 51st Primetime Emmy Awards held September 12, 1999 in Los Angeles.
HOUDINI was released on VHS in 2000, but it has yet to appear on DVD. While Death Defying Acts was released in 2008 making it the most recent Houdini film, HOUDINI was the last straight-ahead biopic of the great magician. Let's hope it isn't the last.
UPDATE: HOUDINI is now available on DVD.
|Johnathon Schaech as Houdini|