Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Judgment in Germany

Continuing my scene-by-scene dissection of the 1953 biopic HOUDINI starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Last time we saw Houdini reach the heights of fame in Europe. But German law wants to bring him back down...

Chapter 14: Judgment in Germany

The next scene in Houdini (1953) is a highlight that furthers Houdini's legend and continues the story of his early European adventures. But did it really happen?

At the end of the last scene, Houdini received a summons to appear before a German tribunal accused of fraud. "I might have to go to jail," he warned Bess. Now we dissolve to the courthouse where a growling prosecutor (Stefan Schnabel) makes his case:

“When any magician transgresses the bounds of reason and humbugs the people into not only thinking but believing that he’s supernatural, then this man becomes a menace to society and must be restrained from further practice of such deception.”

Sounds serious! (And a little flattering.) It's hard not to see this as a witch trial. The prosecutor is dressed in robes from the last century. Houdini, on the other hand, is dressed in a modern gray suit. (The suit reminds me of the one he wore at his 1926 congressional hearing.) It makes for a nice contrast. Houdini represents modernity defending itself against old-world superstition.

Houdini stands and offers his defense, using words the real Houdini spoke many times from the stage.

"I have never claimed to be supernatural. All my escapes have been effected by purely physical means."

The judge (Lawrence Ryle) decides to put it to a test. If Houdini can open the courthouse safe in full view of the tribunal, he will have proven himself a man of skill and not the devil's pawn. Houdini volunteers to do one better. He will escape from the safe! As he hands his coat off to Bess, she reminds him of the last safe he got into. A nice callback.

After Houdini climbs inside the safe, we hear the poorly dubbed line, "Go ahead, what are you waiting for. Lock it up." The door is locked. Seconds tick by on the courtroom clock. All wait anxiously. All except Bess, who shows no concern at all. This is amusing, but it's actually inconsistent with her characterization. Janet Leigh's Bess is constantly worrying! By the way, notice she is wearing her royal crown brooch.

Soon, the tumblers on the safe door began to rotate. The door swings open, and Houdini emerges. "It's hot in there," he says. The courtroom bursts into applause, and the case is dismissed. Houdini even receives a grudging handshake from the sour prosecutor.

So, is any of this real? Yes, basically. Houdini did appear before a court in Germany in 1902 and demonstrated his escape abilities before a judge and jury. However, Houdini was the plaintiff, not the defendant.

It all started with an article in the Daily Rheinische Zeitung in which a German police officer, Werner Graf, who had challenged Houdini with a lock that he easily defeated, claimed the magician was a fraud who had used a saw to escape from his lock and had attempted to bribe him. Houdini demanded a retraction. Graf refused. So Houdini filed slander charges against Graf and editor Johann Merfeld. The case was heard in Cologne.

The first trial ran for three days, during which Houdini demonstrated how he easily opened Graf’s lock by rapping it against a metal plate fastened below his knee. He then showed the judge how he could slip out of any transport chain. Houdini won the case and created a poster that told the story of the trial with a dramatic image that clearly influenced Houdini's Art Directors, Al Nozaki and Hal Pereira, and/or Set Decorators Sam Comer and Ray Moyer.

But what about the safe?

Graf appealed the case twice. Houdini claimed that during the third trial, he was challenged to open the judges' safe, which, ironically, they had forgotten to lock. This is likely fiction. There is no record of Houdini doing anything at the third trial except being present. Houdini also often told the story of almost being defeated by an unlocked door, freely changing the details and location to suit the occasion. But the safe story is in the Kellock book on which this movie is based, so as far as screenwriter Philip Yordan was concerned, he was drawing from fact.

Okay, back to the movie.

As the "audience" leaves the courtroom, Mama says to Bess, "But Harry never saw that safe before, how did he ever do it? What is the trick?" Bess tells her the only trick was to get the judge to lock him inside the safe. "Safes were built to keep people from breaking in, not out."

Could this be considered an exposure? If so, it's the only exposure in the movie. But this "in, not out" idea comes from Kellock, so maybe it gets a pass for being Bess-approved. (In contracts Bess drew up for earlier biopic projects, there was always a stipulation that the film must not feature exposures.) It's also utter nonsense. Don't get inside a safe thinking you can easily get out!

But what about the mystery man with a stopwatch who has been watching the entire proceedings? The camera cuts to him several times. It appears someone else has taken an interest in the abilities of The Great Houdini...



  1. The photos from the film reminds me why I vote the 1953 Houdini film as the best MOVIE, (not documentary), with the A-List production values, (look at those costumes by Edith Head.) star power, wonderful character & background players the studios used back then.
    (These "deconstructions" are great!)

    Diego Domingo

    1. Thanks, Diego. My love and appreciation for this movie just continues to grow.