Coming to Channel 7 next Tuesday night at 8.40pm is the History Channel’s two part series on HOUDINI! (Followed by an old episode of Dynamo: Magician Impossible – everyone is getting ready for The Magic Festival!
But how much “history” is there mixed in with mystery that Houdini himself liked to generate?
The website WILDABOUTHARRY, dedicated to all things Houdini, had this to say:
The Houdini miniseries is a strange confection of fact and fantasy that is stylish and breezy enough to be entertaining to general audiences, but will disappoint and confound anyone with even a basic understanding of the real life of Harry Houdini.
Anyone who has spent any time reading this blog knows that I am forgiving to a fault about inaccuracies in Houdini biopics. I love the 1953 Tony CurtisHoudini movie, despite the fact that Houdini biographer Milbourne Christopher correctly pointed out that, “If any phase of Houdini’s life is shown on the screen you can be sure it didn’t happen the way it’s pictured.” My favorite biopic is The Great Houdinis (1976), even though it invents a family triangle that made David Lustig, who knew Houdini personally, “feel nauseated.”
I don’t have a problem with these movies. Because at the end of the day, they still adhere to the basic superstructure of Houdini’s life and career. Their dramatizations do not really change anything that is vital to our understanding of the Houdini story. A basic summary of these biopics will still give you the story of Houdini. That’s because they had screenwriters who did their research, and even though they had to work within the Hollywood machine, and create conflict and drama, they showed respect for the notion of a biopic and respect for Houdini.
Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer is a hero of mine. He wrote what I consider to be the best Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. He wrote and directed the best Star Trek movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And don’t even get me started on the awesomeness of Time After Time and, yes, I even kinda LOVEVolunteers. So when I heard he was writing the Houdini biopic, I was very excited. Sure, it would have fictionalizations, but that’s the nature of the medium, and like the screenwriters who came before, Meyer would find a balance. I spent a better part of a year pre-explaining this.
Once the floodgates have been opened, more fictionalizations come pouring forth, supplanting real events in Houdini’s life that would have provided much better drama. Instead of standing trial in Germany and proving himself by performing escapes in a courtroom (as really happened), Meyer substitutes a scene of Houdini doing a bullet catch for the Kaiser (never happened). Instead of his dramatic escape from the Siberian Transport Prison Van in Russia, we get a magic performance for the Royal family and a disapproving Rasputin (who, by the way, would not arrive on the scene for another two years). We also get to see Harry having a kinky affair with British painter Lady Butler which, of course, is pure kinky fiction. This all threw me so badly that I found Night One pretty hard to watch, even though it was nice to see things like Houdini’s aviation career finally included in a Houdini movie (notice I didn’t use biopic).Well, it kills me to say that if any screenwriter can and should be sued for malpractice, it is Nicholas Meyer for his work on Houdini (at least in the first night). Meyer’s script is not “artistic license,” it’s negligence, and at times Houdini is so bad it’s actionable (I will explain later). When Houdini’s life doesn’t fit his fictions or lazy assumptions, he changes the life. How, when, and where Houdini finds fame and success — a key component in the life story of any entertainer — is completely thrown out the window for a version that is straight out of Meyer’s imagination. Here, Houdini rockets to worldwide fame via a single “Johnson County” jail break in 1896. That’s it. No Martin Beck. No trip to Europe. No Alhambra debut. No Scotland Yard challenge. Houdini springs fully formed (complete with Water Torture Cell) and is already the “most famous man in America” by 1900. This is so far from the truth it’s shocking.
Now, I don’t think I’m being nit-picky here. I’m not counting rivets on the Milk Can. I’m talking about something that is as fundamental to the story of Houdini as Pearl Harbor is to a story of World War II. Some things you cannot change, and it doesn’t matter if you’re the guy who made Star Trek II. Doing so shows a brazen disrespect for the subject and for the audience, and you will lose the world’s most forgiving and supportive Houdini fan — me.
Meyer’s other offenses are more fundamental and just plain sloppy. He misspells Houdini’s real name as Erich (it’s Ehrich). He portrays a deep rift between Ehrich and his father, but never explains it. He presents the Water Torture Cell as Houdini’s first major escape … in 1900! Not just horrendously wrong, but it effectively erases the entire progression of Houdini’s art and career. He places Houdini’s home in Brooklyn instead of Harlem, seemingly for no reason other than personal taste? Houdini was a cinema pioneer. Meyer makes him a cinema holdout. Houdini was a famous teetotaler. Meyer shows him drunk. Houdini created an act and an identity for his brother as Hardeen in 1900. Meyer shows Hardeen performing successfully in the 1890s while Houdini is still struggling to make his own name. What kills me is Meyer just seems to take the approach that the truth doesn’t matter. The truth is what works for him at the moment. The entire thing feels lazy, arrogant, and even amateur.
But it soon becomes clear why Meyer so badly mangles the facts of Houdini’s early life, and to be fair, he may have been forced into this by producer Gerald W. Abrams, who bears as much responsibility for what we see here as Meyer. Because at minute 40, Washington D.C. comes a’calling and sends Houdini off to Europe as a secret agent! Now, this 2004 theory that Houdini did “spy” work for the U.S. and UK is HIGHLY dubious (and more so with each passing year of total silence on the subject from the authors who first proposed it) and should neverhave been included in something that purports to be a biopic. But Hollywood cannot resist a spy movie, and it dominates Night One. Suddenly, Houdini’s career is sidelined and the miniseries turns into “Harry Houdini of the Secret Service,” with Brody taking orders from “M” (get it?), running across embassy rooftops, and using his magic act only as a “cover.” What was that about feeling nauseated?
However, as I said, much of Meyer’s machinations are so the silly silly spy elements will fit the narrative. This is why Night Two, which is finally free of the spy element (thank you, World War I!) is MUCH better. In fact, Night Two shows us what could have been, and goes a long way toward redeeming the disaster of Night One. Sure, artistic license and time compression are employed, but there finally seems to be an effort to tell Houdini’s story accurately and respectfully. Meyer even resists the temptation to go directly from Mama’s death (incorrectly dated as 1914 — a year Meyer assigns to just about everything) to spiritualism, and therefore is able to give Houdini’s movie career its due. This is the first time any biopic has done so and what a joy to see Harry and Bessie sitting in a Hollywood screening room watching The Grim Game with Brody dangling from the plane.
The best scenes in the miniseries are among the last — Houdini’s death in Grace Hospital in Detroit. Here the actors finally get to play dramatic scenes without the incessant voice over and hyperactive editing effects (more on that later). Houdini’s bedside conversation with his doctor is right out of real life. The details of Houdini’s death, while dramatically time compressed, are largely accurate. Houdini does not die in the Water Torture Cell in HISTORY’s Houdini, which is a first. This shows that Meyer did do his research and, yes, might even care. And if you’ve made it to the very end without throwing a shoe through your TV screen, there is real footage of Houdini’s graveside funeral that has never been shown before, including a look at the large “Mother Love” floral arrangement. Wonderful.
Meyer also has his moments of brilliance. After failing to seduce Houdini in his hotel room, Margery, nicely played by Megan Dodds, turns to him and says, “When you die, we will make you say whatever we like.” That’s a great piece of dialogue and shows just how good a Houdini biopic can and should be. I just wish whatever hand guided this second night was present during the first.
On the topic of actionable issues, while the movie credits as its source Houdini: A Mind In Chains by Bernard C. Meyer (screenwriter Nicholas Meyer’s father), it clearly isn’t. There’s nothing here about Leo and Sadie Weiss which is key to the Meyer book. Instead, Houdini is clearly adapted from The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. Houdini’s “spy” activities and Bessie’s marijuana use (sigh) are only found in the Kalush/Sloman book. And there are dozens of other examples. Possibly the inclusion of Lionsgate as a producer means some kind of deal was made to use this exclusive material (they acquired the book when they bought Summit Entertainment in 2012), so maybe the only offense here is that on-screen credit was denied Kalush and Sloman so it could be given to the screenwriter’s father. But this just adds to an overall feeling that something untoward is going on at the screenwriting level.Stylistically, Houdini is a very mixed bag. Producer Gerald W. Abrams said his inspiration was the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes (oh, why could it not have beenBoardwalk Empire?). So Houdinistrains to ape director’s Guy Ritchie’s filmmaking style with hyperactive speed ramping and frenetic editing. This works well … when it’s done by Guy Ritchie. It doesn’t work here. It feels desperate, dated, and distracting. So does much of John Debney’s bombastic score. Also, the entire 4 hour miniseries (3 without commercials) uses Harry’s voice over to explain motivation and make transitions. There’s some nice dialog in here — “Most people escape life, I escape death” — but voice over is a lazy narrative device that generally works to keep the viewer removed from the drama. It all feels like exposition. You keep waiting for the real story to start. Superimposed titles are used throughout to locate the action, yet not a single one is accurate. Why use locators if they are not identifying something real? It’s just all part of the masquerade of a biopic.
The beautiful breakout talent of Kristen Connolly (House of Cards) is criminally under-used as Bess. Meyer writes Bess as somewhat dim and present largely to nag Harry into doing things like giving up his escape career (which, of course, never happened). At one point she even blurts out, “I’m just a dumb girl who married a Jew.” This is a horrendous thing to put into Bess’s mouth and disrespectful to her memory. Nevertheless, Connolly is still able to punch her way through this surprisingly chauvinistic script and deliver a feisty, funny, and very likable Bess. She also delivers heartbreakingly honest moments, such as the aforementioned scene when she talks Houdini out of performing escapes, and her death bed scene with Brody is perfection.
Speaking of the women in Houdini’s life, call me crazy, but is there a weird sexual energy between Mama, played by Eszter Ónodi, and her son from their first scene to their last? More than once an object of Harry’s sexual interest morphs into his mother. And mama’s fixation on her son, both in human and spirit form, comes off as downright creepy. Is this the unstated problem between Houdini and his father? Even the official press material teases: “Houdini and his mother Cecelia had a close and loving relationship, some would say too close.” Hmmm… Let’s change the subject.
Magic! The magic and escapes in Houdini are beautifully recreated and staged, especially the cannon escape, and Houdini could only wish his own Vanishing Elephant was as effective as it is here. Kudos to technical advisor David Merlini. But its also here that Houdini commits its worst offense, and this is no joke.Houdini freely and cavalierly exposes secrets for no plot reason whatsoever. And these aren’t small tricks: Metamorphosis, the Milk Can, the Bullet Catch, Walking Through A Brick Wall (although in this case it does serve the narrative and I would give it a pass). This is the first Houdini biopic to cross this line, and it’s a shame to see cinema betray the art that was part of its birth. This is especially distressing as Adrien Brody started out as a magician and still has a deep interest in the art of magic. You’d think the Oscar winner could have had some say in stopping this. I’m hoping that the S.A.M., IBM, and AMA officially condemn this miniseries for this serious transgression.
Okay, the script has problems, but what about the other aspects of the film (Mrs. Lincoln)? Well, that is also a heartbreaker, because the technical work on Houdiniis simply breathtaking! Shot entirely in Budapest, Houdini had a talented crew who clearly gave it their all. Costume and production design by Patrizia Von Brandenstein is phenomenal. The almost 300 special effect shots give the movie scale and scope. Uli Edel did a find job directing, and all the supporting cast deliver excellent performances. Even Adrien Brody, a poor physical match for Houdini, delivers a pitch perfect performance and projects a charisma that he surely shares with The Handcuff King. He’s a great Houdini.
In fact, if you make your peace with the inaccuracies and watch this as Houdini fiction — a tale told by an unreliable narrator “with just enough truth to make you believe the lies” — it can be very enjoyable indeed. And I think it will be just that for general audiences. Because it’s possible that I’m now Milbourne Christopher, watching the Tony Curtis movie and finding it impossible to see the value of something that doesn’t follow the facts that I’ve spent a lifetime uncovering and attempting to communicate to the world. And it’s also just as possible that there is a 10-year-old version of me out there who will watch this miniseries, as I watched the Curtis movie, and find themselves captivated by the story of Houdini and will want to discover for themselves the truth of this amazing man. And in that way, this modern version of Houdini might just be magical after all.