Friday, June 14, 2024

Young Anthony Hopkins

It's only a couple of weeks ago that I blogged about Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day, by which time he was quite famous, it being after his first Oscar win. Back in October for Halloween, TCM aired a much earlier Hopkins movie that I hadn't seen before, which sounded interesting, so I recorded it: Magic. Recently, I finally watched it off my DVR.

Hopkins plays Corky, a struggling magician working the nightclub scene in New York; his British accent is explained away by the fact that his parents emigrated to work the Borscht Belt which is how Corky wound up in America. That Catskills upbringing however does come in as a plot point later in the movie. When we first see him, Corky is nervous and despite doing his mentor Merlin's tricks and doing them well, the show flops because of Corky's nerves and lack of delivery. Merlin tells Corky that he needs a gimmick, so he goes off and gets one.

Fast forward some unspecified amount of time, and Corky is back at that same club we first saw him in, only this time his agent Ben (Burgess Meredith), who knows about Corky's new gimmick, shows up with a network representative in tow. Corky starts doing his routine, which looks a lot like the same one he was doing as the movie opened. And that show seems to be bombing just as badly as the first one. So badly, in fact, that a man starts heckling him from the back of the room.

In fact, that's the gimmick. Corky isn't getting into a double act like Martin and Lewis in The Stooge; in fact, the heckler is a ventriloquist's dummy, named Fats, and the idea that Corky can throw his voice that far is impressive in itself. But Fats serves as the distraction a magician needs for his sleight of hand. Corky also gives Fats the persona of an off-color heckler, injecting humor into the routine. Fats turns the show into a success, enough that the guy from the network wants to offer Corky a pilot.

But there's a catch. One of the clauses in the standard contract is that the person getting the pilot needs to do a physical, and Corky is flatly against that, which he says is from principle, but the way it's all presented foreshadows that there's probably something darker going on. Indeed, we've seen Corky carrying on a conversation with Fats with no one else around. Corky runs away heading back for home, except that all his family are dead and gone.

Corky really has another reason for heading back to the Catskills. When he was in school, he had a crush on lovely Peggy Ann (Ann-Margret), and is looking to see her again, stopping at the motel her parents owned. But it's Peggy who's there, having been given control of the motel when her parents left for Florida. But since the Borscht Belt is dying by this time, the business isn't going well and she lives in a loveless marriage with her husband Duke (Ed Lauter).

At this point, the movie starts getting really dark. The voice of Fats inside Corky's head doesn't go away, and when Corky rekindles his relationship with Peggy, going farther than he did in high school, it's not only Duke who has a problem with it; Corky does as well. Fats senses the danger, and things start to spiral out of control from there....

The old horror anthology trope of a ventriloquist's dummy that seems to take on a life of its own has been done a lot of times, but I don't think it's so common that it's been extended out to a full-length film. Magic does it fairly well, helped by an intelligent way of introducing the premise. That, and fairly good performances, especially from Hopkins and Meredith. Magic, for some reason, has fallen through the cracks, and isn't so well remembered today, which is a bit of a surprise considering the star power of the cast. It's definitely one that deserves better, and deserves a watch.

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