Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Death Defying Acts (2008)

In many ways, Death Defying Acts is the model for how not to make a film about Houdini. It opts for fiction over fact, spiritualism over magic and escapes, and incident over biography. It even omits Houdini's name from the title. What the filmmakers thought would be the "hook" of this movie is beyond me, except that it starred Catherine Zeta-Jones.

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 the fictional 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."

The real highlight of Death Defying Acts is the outstanding production design by Gemma Jackson. The opening bridge jump in Sydney Harbor is truly evocative of the period. Many authentic Houdini photos are recreated with Pearce's likeness. Houdini's stationary is even accurately reproduced. The Chinese Water Torture Cell is nicely recreated, although Pearce's patter is hokey and its conclusion, with Pearce lounging across the top like a beach boy, seems out of character. While Bess does not appear in the film, her photograph does. Oddly, the filmmakers elected not to use a photo of the real Bess, but a photo of an unknown actress. Who is this mystery Bessie?

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.

Produced for less than $20 million, Death Defying Acts was financed through the Australian Film Finance Corp., BBC Films and Myriad Pictures. After it was completed, The Weinstein Company bought the film after viewing a promo reel at the American Film Market, paying a reported $5.5 million for limited distribution rights. Myriad Pictures had already sold distribution rights in the U.K. to Lionsgate.

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."

Death Defying Acts wasn't entirely "promotion-free". There was a novelization written by Greg Cox released by Pocket Books (left). This was only the second time a Houdini film was novelized (the first being The Great Houdinis in 1976). A 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 plays the Chinese 6 in Hollywood in 2008.

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  1. Apart from its factual misrepresentations, which matter only to people like us, I thought the film's flaw is that it wasn't a good romance or a good caper movie. No chemistry between the stars, and a too-simple plot. Lavish production values, though. Oddly, the novel based on the movie was somewhat better.

    1. Good observations.

      I didn't read the novelization myself. Maybe I should give a try.

  2. Still waiting for the big one ...

    (Nice review though).

  3. Perhaps the movie's nuttiest idea is that Houdini would search for a genuine medium by auditioning vaudeville acts rather than, say, attending seances by mediums.

    1. Yeah, that is odd. There's are lot of things like this in the film that just don't seem to be completely thought through. But maybe the idea is that he's tried all the mediums and now he's throwing it open to anyone.

  4. I've been re-watching this movie over the past few nights and I'm coming to like it more and more. It's really beautifully made, and its a movie that loves and respects Houdini. It's a great tribute. Director Gillian Armstrong's commentary on the DVD is well worth listening too as well.

  5. Just stumbled onto this review. For what it's worth, I really enjoyed writing the novelization--which gave me an excuse to research Houdini for a couple of months. Can't complain about that!

    1. Hi Greg. Thanks for finding us and for the comment. Houdini research as part of the job. Indeed, that sounds ideal. :)

  6. watching on Canadian movie channel -- never been so awfully bored