Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Deconstructing Houdini '53: Genie in a Bottle

Continuing my scene-by-scene dissection of the 1953 biopic HOUDINI starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Last time, Houdini defended himself in court. Now, he completes a strange pilgrimage.

Chapter 15: Genie in a Bottle

The next scene in Houdini '53 takes us to the home of the elusive Herr Von Schweger and begins the movie's turn to a somewhat darker tone. While one might think this scene is pure fiction, it is actually rooted in reality.

The scene opens with Harry knocking on a door marked Johann Von Schweger. We realize he has finally been given an audience with the reclusive conjurer. Eerie music plays on the soundtrack as Houdini enters what appears to be an empty house. The rooms are not filled with mementos of a Music Hall career as one might expect. Instead, we see items from the Far East and other mysterious lands and religions. There's even what appears to be a seance table. Von Schweger has clearly gone deeper into the realms of magic and mystery than a typical magician.

Houdini calls out "hello" several times. Finally, a voice sounds from behind him, saying, "You're too late. Von Schweger died two days ago." The voice belongs to the mystery man from the courthouse, Otto (Torin Thatcher).

As first noted in Chapter 13, I see Von Schweger as analogous to the real-life Wiljalba Frikell. This scene just enforces that idea. But this is a rare case where real life was even more dramatic than fiction.

In 1903, Houdini was finally invited to the home of the reclusive Frikell, only to find the magician had died two hours before he arrived. In fact, Frikell's body was still laid out in the parlor, surrounded by mementos of his career. A macabre scene. Maybe too much so for a 1953 film? Or maybe it would have been too awkward to continue with the scene that follows with a corpse in the room. Still, reworking Houdini's famous Frikell visit is another way this movie respectfully pulls from real Houdini history in building its fictional narrative.

Houdini at Villa Frikell, the real "Von Schweger" home.

Otto says he was asked to follow Houdini's career very closely. Finally, Von Schweger decided he "was worthy." We then get the following exchange:

Harry: Do you know what he wanted to tell me?
Otto: He had nothing to tell you. He wanted to ask you if you had learned the secret of how to dematerialize.
Harry: Me? But I heard he had already done it.
Otto: It happened before I became his assistant. I asked him. He would neither admit it nor deny it. But one thing I am sure of, he was never able to repeat it. I know because I helped him spend the rest of his life trying.

This idea of "dematerialization" is also rooted in Houdini history. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed it was how Houdini made his escapes. Doyle cited as evidence the testimony of a friend who had witnessed Houdini's Double Fold Milk Can and claimed to have felt the dematerialization happening. By the way, I have one minor quibble here. Houdini says he was "in Switzerland" when he received Von Schweger's cable. Houdini never played Switzerland. I would have suggested Vienna.

Otto then retrieves from a box a model of a man in a pagoda-like bottle, presumably a scale model of Von Schweger's dematerialization illusion. "He intended to give you this," he says as he hands it to Houdini.

The camera pushes into the bottle for a nice close-up with the eerie music resuming. Notice the figure in the bottle is wearing a suit similar to Houdini's. Also notice when the shot returns to Houdini, he is holding the bottom upside down, an idea already forming in his head...

The eerie music ends and the mood lightens. Otto, having retrieved his hat and suitcase, turns to Harry and says, "Now I am working for you."

Otto is an interesting character. He definitely echoes Franz Kukol, Houdini's real-life chief assistant, hired during his first European tour. While Otto's nationality is never established, he speaks with a German accent and has a military bearing, just like Franz. And like Otto, Franz returned to America with Houdini and remained his loyal assistant.

The real Otto, Franz Kukol.

However, Otto's role in Houdini '53 is larger in a dramatic sense. He is somewhat Mephistophelian in appearance and behavior. He becomes not just Houdini's assistant but his enabler, guiding him deeper into the more dangerous realms of magic, which we know Houdini can't resist. He is the opposite of the cautious Bess.

Houdini doesn't object to Otto's self-hiring. He seems to understand and accept this strange turn of events. He simply smiles and says, "Looks like Von Schweger left me with more than just a man in a bottle."

He did indeed. Von Schweger, via Otto, has handed Houdini his fate.


  1. YES YES YES YES YES!!! EXACTLY! YES!!!! I'm so glad you mentioned Frikell. I've been meaning to add him to my podcast list and for whatever reason, I keep forgetting. Now, he's on the for the future. I love your Deconstruction articles on Houdini 53!

    1. Thanks, Dean! Would love to hear you do an episode on Frikell.