Friday, August 4, 2023

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Mirror images

Continuing my scene-by-scene dissection of Paramount's classic 1953 biopic Houdini. Last time we experienced Harry's career Metamorphosis. Today he faces two challenges...

Chapter 12: Mirror images

Houdini became famous throughout Europe in the early 1900s as "The Handcuff King and World Champion Jailbreaker." In the next two scenes of Houdini '53, we see him earn these titles with two spectacular challenge escapes. One challenge builds on a foundation of myth while the other builds on fact. But you might be surprised which is which.

In the preceding sequence. Houdini was challenged to escape from a Scotland Yard jail. Now he arrives onsite and meets the warden (Malcolm Lee Beggs). The warden performs a search of his new "prisoner." This is not a strip search that the real Houdini would endure. Bess is not present, which seems like a missed opportunity, but it may be accurate. Despite what we see in other biopics, I've never heard of Bess attending any jailbreak, and it's possible women would not be allowed in a cellblock. (So much for passing the key in a kiss.)

Houdini is handcuffed and the door is locked. He instantly escapes the cuffs and hands them to the warden who blusters, "We'll see who has the last laugh, Mr. Houdini!"

Once the men are gone, Houdini retrieves a length of wire from his waistband and goes to work on the lock that extends outside the cell, a complication he learned about only after he had agreed to the challenge. Across from him a prisoner (Ralph Peters) watches with fascination and begins to mirror Houdini's actions with a bent spoon. But it isn't going well and Harry even drops the wire. The prisoner likewise drops his spoon.

Houdini's all-or-nothing escape from Scotland Yard is told in almost every major biography. In these colorful accounts, it's a handcuff escape in the lobby of Scotland Yard with the man doing the cuffing none other than Superintendent William Melville himself. So the movie is basing this on fact. Or is it?

I don't believe the Scotland Yard escape ever happened. At least not as described in any biography. Houdini did visit Scotland Yard during his first weeks in England but as a tourist. (You can read my full case HERE.) So while the filmmakers might think they are drawing on real Houdini history here, they're actually building upon a myth, and it won't be for the last time. But I don't fault them as the Scotland Yard escape has long been considered fact.

While Houdini continues to struggle we fade away to the next day at the Alhambra Theater. The audience is chanting "We want Houdini!" as Bess tries to placate them with magic. The warden is sitting smugly beside Inspector Marlick (Barry Bernard). It's clear Houdini has not escaped.

Bess then enacts an improbable plan. She announces to the audience that while Houdini is unable to appear in person, "He will send his alter ego from the spirit world." She backs into the cabinet, the movie's version of Houdini's "ghost house," and quickly dons a tuxedo and Houdini mask (or many I should say a Tony Curtis mask). She then steps from the cabinet as "Houdini," much to the astonishment of the audience.

This is the third time we've seen disguise used in this movie. That could be why this doesn't seem as improbable as it should. But what I especially love here is the mention of "the spirit world." It nicely foreshadows what's to come and pulls from reality. The Houdinis performed a spiritualism act early in their careers. While this was never established in the film, we can still imagine Bess, in desperation, reaching back to her knowledge of spirit trickery to once again deceive an audience. It's also the second time in this sequence that we've seen someone "mirroring" the real Houdini. And speaking of mirrors...

A man in the audience suddenly stands and challenges "Houdini" with a special pair of handcuffs that he made himself. He marches on stage and manacles the magician, saying the only way to get the cuffs off is to saw them off. The audience laughs heartily as the disguised Bess tumbles back into the cabinet and a new struggle commences. Handcuffs rigged to never open were something the real Houdini had to contend with.

That's when we see the real Houdini, finally free of the jail, arriving backstage. He sneaks inside the cabinet and helps the handcuffed Bess get free of her disguise and tuxedo. Houdini himself then emerges from the cabinet, torn jacket in hand, having apparently escaped the inescapable handcuffs. When the challenger asks what happened to his cuffs, Houdini shows they are now on Bess. Metamorphosis!

Some might view all this as pure Hollywood fiction. But I see a conscious echo of Houdini's very real escape from the Mirror Handcuffs in London in 1904. Think about it. It's a custom-made super cuff brought on stage by an aggressive challenger. Houdini's coat is sacrificed in the course of the drama. And one of the many stories about the Mirror challenge is that Bess saved Houdini by securing the key. What did we just witness but Bess saving her husband? So this super cuff challenge mirrors the Mirror!

With these two triumphs, we've reached the halfway point in Houdini '53. It seems the only question now is how high can The Great Houdini climb?

I feel a montage coming on...


  1. I also stopped believing the Scotland Yard escape long ago. His visit as a tourist makes the most sense.

  2. The real Houdini would not have let anyone on stage without an assistant stopping him. And if the handcuff is made for a man to fit into it, Bess should have been able to slip out of it.