But having said that, Death Defying Acts is not without merit, and it was good to see Houdini in any form back on the big screen, if only for one week.
From the start, Death Defying Acts was more about the role of Mary McGarvie than Houdini. This was clear when the project was first announced in the trades as Death Defying Feats in 2005. At that time, Rachel Weisz was set for the co-starring role. Weisz even said she believed she might be related to Houdini! But even with the casting of Guy Pearce as Houdini the project would have trouble getting off the ground until Catherine Zeta-Jones, fresh off her Oscar win for Chicago, took over the role of Mary, reportedly agreeing to a pay cut that "saved the film."
Directed by Gillian Armstrong with a script by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, Death Defying Acts tells the fictional story of Houdini's obsessive search for a medium who can prove communication with the dead (and his mother) during a tour of Scotland in 1926. Houdini discovers McGarvie, a Scottish Music Hall clairvoyant, who along with her young daughter, Benji (nicely played by Saoirse Ronan), manipulates matters to get inside Houdini's cloistered world. Ultimately the two tricksters fall in love.
The film was shot in Edinburgh (where it is set) and in London's Savoy Hotel. Much was made by the British tabloid press about an on-set injury to star Zeta-Jones when a member of the crew accidentally stepped on her toe. The Sun reported that, "It virtually took the toenail clean off." Executive producer Dan Lupovitz threw cold water on the story by saying, "It was as minor incident which hardly disrupted filming. She's fine."
In the film, Guy Pearce plays Houdini as a bit of a primadonna who berates hotel porters and barks at his (fictional) manager, Mr. Sugarman (Timothy Spall). Pearce also effects a husky, gravelly voice. The result is the least likable Houdini of them all, although Pearce certainly looks the part with a very Houdini-like physique (although he's the Houdini of 1906 rather than 1926). Says Pearce: "There’s footage of Houdini and there’s audio stuff of him, but I decided to go in a completely different direction and really just work off what my own imaginative response was to the script anyway, I think, rather than really just trying to channel somebody."
For once a Hollywood film does not portray Houdini as dying in the Water Torture Cell. However Death Defying Acts takes the punch in the stomach story to a new mythic level by having Houdini struck in public and dropping dead on the spot. The so credited "Montreal student", played by Justin Flagg, shouts "Trick or Treat" before he delivers the fatal blow. The punch, and Houdini's problematic appendix, are set-up throughout the film, but the depiction of his sudden death seems a bit lazy.
Death Defying Acts had its world premiere at the State Theater in Sydney Australia on March 10, 2008. A VIP after-party was held at the Zeta Bar at the Sydney Hilton. The film never saw a wide theatrical release in the U.S. Instead, the film played for only one week in two theaters: the Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema in New York and Manns Chinese Theater 6 in Hollywood (where I saw it on July 11, 2008).
The film actually received a good review in the Los Angeles Times, which stated; "Death Defying Acts is far more diverting and well crafted than its promotion-free release campaign might suggest. What the film loses in momentum as the romance takes over, it gains in sex appeal as its two attractive actors make their own kind of magic."
CD soundtrack of the score by Cezary Skubiszewski was also released, and marked the first time a Houdini movie soundtrack made it into stores.
Death Defying Acts was released on DVD on October 28, 2008. The DVD packaging wisely carried a new subtitle, "Houdini's Secret". In some territories the title became Houdini's Death Defying Acts. The DVD includes commentary by director Gillian Armstrong and producer Marian MacGowan, and a Making Of documentary. A Blockbuster Exclusive DVD contained a short documentary, Houdini: The Man Behind The Magic, featuring the stars and filmmakers discussing the real Houdini.
Death Defying Acts is an interesting addition to the Houdini film canon. While maybe not the Houdini film we wanted for the 21st Century, its sincerity makes up for its flaws.
|Death Defying Acts at one of two theaters it played in 2008 (Chinese 6 in Hollywood).|