Friday, November 21, 2014

How I learned to love the Houdini miniseries

You know those annoying romantic comedies in which the characters start off hating each other, but then slowly begin to fall in love despite themselves? And then there's that moment when the girl comes down the stairs in her beautiful new dress, and the boy sees her as if for the first time and he's suddenly head over heels. Well, I think that's what's happening with me and the Houdini miniseries, and I think I had my down the stairs moment with the extended edition DVD, or what screenwriter Nicholas Meyer calls, the "Lionsgate version."

The villain in this story is (still) the HISTORY channel. Showing a drastically edited and severely compromised version in the U.S. on September 1st & 2nd (also included on the DVD) did not help love bloom. The network let down the audience and the filmmakers by showing us something that I would call unfinished. While some of the cuts were small, they were critical, and I'd even say the filmmakers' work and intentions were totally misrepresented by the network. We should never have seen that version of Houdini.

For starters, the extended version starts with this disclaimer:

What you are about to see is FACT.
It is also FICTION.
We defy you to tell the difference...

It's hard for me to say for certain, but had I seen this disclaimer on the original broadcast, I might have written a very different review back in September. Because with this the filmmakers not only announce their approach, but they also announce the tone. The disclaimer doesn't come off as arrogant. It seems playful; almost like the start of a magic performance. It reminds me of the disclaimer attached to Meyer's Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which read: "The story is true…only the facts have been made up."

So from the start, we now know we are going to get a story that is fact and fiction, told by Houdini himself, and if you accept the challenge to tell the difference, you'll notice there are clues along the way. For example, when the miniseries goes into its spy movie mode, the music changes significantly. I didn't notice this the first time. I just felt that the miniseries had made a sudden and silly lurch into fiction, and I felt betrayed by what I had been told was a "biopic." But in this version, with the disclaimer and challenge in my head, I noted the musical shift as a clue that we were entering a fantasy moment. Suddenly I was watching Haldane of the Secret Service, and now I was seeing Houdini (the storyteller) work his silent movie spy fantasies into his real life story. That's fun. Maybe I am reading too much into this and giving the filmmakers too much credit…but, damn, this is a whole different girl coming down those stairs!

Because the extended miniseries now has a scene in which it's specifically stated that Martin Beck arranged for Houdini's European tour, this also made the spy narrative more palatable. Without the mention of Beck, the entire trip to Europe appeared to be a concoction of the U.S. government, and that was too big a pill to swallow. But now we are giving the facts and the fiction in much the same way it's laid out in the book, The Secret Life of Houdini, from which all this derives (again, this book should have been credited as the source).

This extended version also seems to have an entirely different pace. The frenetic editing seems to have been removed, or at least reduced. Certainly there are very noticeable extensions to scenes. The Houdinis' wedding night bedroom scene is now longer, and I love the moment when Harry discovers that Bess's curls are just a wig. We also see a quick scene in which Bess's mother angrily slaps her and throws her out of the house for marrying a Jew. This helps us better understand her demons and her later behavior when she turns her mother's words back on Harry. Overall, you get more time with the actors, small but critical connections are made, and the experience is much more enjoyable.

One very big difference is that the break between Part One and Part Two is completely different. In HISTORY's version, Part One takes us all the way to the bridge jump and Houdini becoming trapped under the ice. They go for the life and death cliffhanger (which we already know will resolve). But in the extended version, Part One ends with Houdini learning his box-office is slipping and his angry outburst: "I write the writing!" This version ends on a career turning point, and it's much less certain how or if it will resolve. Part Two then opens with Harry watching a Charlie Chaplin movie, the future, and he begins to work on his response. It's so much more effective.

I always liked Part Two, so there was no dramatic conversion for me here. Part Two is still largely fact-based and strong. But a bonus is that we now get to see Arthur Ford (played by Alexis Latham) along with Bessie's doll collection at the end. And Bess's line to Ford, "You're pretty," is nicely chilling. (The real Bess said of Ford that he was "just so handsome.")

Are there still things I dislike? Absolutely. There are still dozens of sloppy inaccuracies in regards to dates and details, and all the points I made in my Fact Checks still stand. I hate that Meyer fictionalized how and when Houdini became famous. I'm still offended by the revelation of magic secrets (expect for Walking Through A Brick Wall, which I think serves a narrative purpose). I'm also now even less in love with John Debney's bombastic, contemporary score, which I think cheapens this better version of the movie. In fact, I think it's telling that the music on the DVD menu isn't Debney, and it sets the mood so much better.

I also wish they would have taken the time to correct the misspelling of "Erich" to Ehrich in the subtitles. I still bristle at moving Houdini's home to Brooklyn instead of Harlem (why!?). But I guess those warts will always be there.

So, yes, all of a sudden these two characters who hated each other are now a kissing couple, and I'm sure there are plenty who will find this disgusting. Maybe I'm crazy and none of what I said above is there. Maybe this is still the same monster who offended me and I insulted in return. But I can't go back from that moment at the foot of the stairs. Yes, I now see a beautiful new Houdini movie before me. But love is blind.


  1. I like the first one, I took it for what it was, ( just a movie) without having to prove to anybody all the inaccuracies. It was enjoyable, some Houdini buffs are out to prove they know everything, and therefore put it down. I enjoy reading your reviews just for the facts, and I thank you for that. Houdini would at least say they are still talking about me. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks. We certainly are still talking about him. One thing that surprised me was how passionate some non Houdini nuts felt about the inaccuracies. They really did get a backlash beyond the magic world.

      And my own intent was not to prove I know everything. I really just wanted a way for people who might have a question about what was true and what wasn't to find the answer.

  2. I love how you handled the tended the facts while managing to keep the movie itself fun...I can see how you fell in love with it and I quite enjoy your theories on the spy stuff and the fantasy to think of Houdini gone wild weaving his tale :)

    1. Thanks Colleen.

      Yeah, it's a way to watch it and make it all work...if only in our own minds. :)

  3. Never underestimate the power of a mirage shimmering in the desert...

  4. Your review in September was one of the funniest written pieces I've read in a long time. I loved it, and it actually inspired me to learn more about facts regarding Houdinis life. So I can't really say I wish that disclaimer was on the original HC broadcast, because I would have truly missed your review had it been different. I read your blog all the time now - it's great.

  5. I finally found the time to watch the extended edition while fighting the flu this past weekend.

    My opinion hasn't changed vs the TV version. While the additions and pacing were better, I still hot annoyed with how out of order the history was. USD before the milk can? Things like that drove me nuts.

    For me this is relegated to the will not watch again pile.

    1. I've had a love/hate relationship with this movie. I've now landed in ambivalence, not unlike how I feel about the 1998 TNT movie.