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Case Number 13839

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Houdini (1953)

Legend Films // 1953 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // June 16th, 2008

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is planning a seance to ask Harry Houdini how accurate Houdini is.

Editor's Note

Our review of Houdini (2014) (Blu-ray), published October 11th, 2014, is also available.

The Charge

"I'll come back, Bess. If there's any way, I'll come back."—Harry Houdini

Opening Statement

If you know the story of Harry Houdini, you know that he vowed to return from the beyond, if he could. As far as I know, he hasn't done it yet, but who knows? The magician and escape artist born as Ehrich Weiss left his earthly life on October 31, 1926, in Detroit, but he has certainly lived on in our culture.

Facts of the Case

When Bess (Janet Leigh, Psycho) first meets Harry Houdini (Tony Curtis, Who Was That Lady?), he's a "wild man" in a dime museum. The second time she meets Houdini, he's tangling with a buzz saw on stage at a carnival. The third time she meets Houdini, he's playing an elderly gent who's miraculously "rejuvenated" by a bogus prof's serum. "Everything happens to me in threes. This is the third time we've met," Houdini says, and he's right. The two marry right away.

Houdini saws his better half in half on their wedding night, but it's only a trick—and they have real chemistry. Houdini and Bess take to the road with his magic act, playing to mostly hostile crowds. At Bess' urging, Houdini takes a job in a factory, making safes. Still, the urge to perform magic burns within Houdini, who ends up doing a spectacular tour of Europe.

As he grows older, Houdini undertakes bolder and more dangerous stunts. He also develops an interest in the spirit world. Thus, the story heads toward an end—for now.

The Evidence

If you're looking for a faithful biopic of Houdini's life, forget it. Houdini takes the basic outline and puts it into a series of vignettes that go for humor or melodrama. It's funny watching Tony Curtis as Houdini win over a rough crowd, but you get the feeling that this isn't how the real Houdini did it.

That said, Curtis' performance does capture something that feels like the real essence of Harry Houdini. Specifically, he manages to sound confident but still keep a wide-eyed innocence and show that he's always sharpening his skills as a magician and escape artist. Curtis keeps that in the older, more mature Houdini, softening his tone but showing that keen interest in the spirit world. When the movie takes a dramatic turn, as when he struggles to escape from a British prison cell, Curtis handles it well, but the tone is mostly light and airy.

Janet Leigh's performance as Bess is good, but she gets too many nagging lines ("Do you want to catch pneumonia?"). When she's not given those lines, Leigh sounds like a passionate wife and supporter of Houdini (perhaps not a stretch, since she married Curtis in real life).

The story may have been based on a book, Harold Kellock's Houdini, His Life, but the mostly light tone and disjointed story make it feel less than authentic. I enjoyed it a lot, but I don't think I learned much about Houdini.

The Technicolor seems slightly faded on this print, but it's clean and has no visible defects.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The lack of extras is a disappointment here. Legend Films could have backed up their entertaining movie with information on the real Harry Houdini or vintage clips of the escape artist in action, creating a really informative package to go with their fluffy movie. Unfortunately, there's nothing but a trailer.

Closing Statement

With all the Hollywood touches, it's hard to tell whether Houdini gives audiences an accurate picture of the man. Of course, given his man of mystery reputation and his belief in the spirit world, he could have been watching Houdini from the beyond, pleased at the result.

The Verdict

Not guilty. Of course, even it was, Houdini could probably escape.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 80
Audio: 85
Extras: 0
Acting: 95
Story: 85
Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: Legend Films
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Biographical
• Classic
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Trailer


• IMDb
• Houdini Museum

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