Magic is a atypical film amongst director Richard Attenborough’s work, because it’s essentially a psychological horror movie. Attenborough was better known as a director of prestige awards-friendly films like Gandhi, Chaplin and A Bridge Too Far, and he was a notable actor for years as well. It’s based off a novel by William Goldman, who was also kind of the original guru of screenwriting. It was the first adaptation of one of Goldman’s novels after Marathon Man, and he wrote the scripts for both films. Goldman wrote perhaps his best script, the film adaptation of All the President’s Men, in between.
Anthony Hopkins was still relatively unknown to the general public at this point despite working on screen, TV and the theatre for around two decades already, as he hadn’t become a leading man yet on the silver screen. In Magic Hopkins plays a peculiar man, Corky Withers, who is a magician (hence the title). Withers uses a ventriloquist dummy, Fats, as a part of his act. He is on the cusp of stardom, but a routine medical exam to get him a spot on a TV show scares him, and he runs off to his hometown. Here Withers ends up hiding out and eventually getting together with his high-school crush, Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret). Burgess Meredith plays Corky’s powerful agent, Ben Greene, who comes looking for him–but can Corky keep his own damaged psyche and his dummy under control?
It’s a very strange film from the outset, and just seeing Anthony Hopkins looking youngish (he was around 40 when they shot this) is strange enough, never mind the film.
Initially, Jack Nicholson was tapped to be the lead back when Norman Jewison was the director. Goldman tells a story in the interview on the disc about visiting an unnamed actor who was smoking a joint and didn’t offer it to him. Goldman didn’t want it, but took it as “fuck you”… I think it’s safe to say that was Jack. It would’ve been interesting to see Nicholson in the part, because it would’ve been a dry run somewhat for Jack Torrance. Apparently the final nail in the coffin was he wouldn’t wear a hairpiece for the film. Spielberg circled the film for a bit, with Robert De Niro as a possible Corky. In any case, Hopkins gives a typically solid performance, although his American accent is all over the place. That fits the skewed psyche of the character, however.
From all accounts, in the book the story is all told in the form of the diary of Fats, which is completely impossible to tell on film. Goldman admits he was somewhat surprised this novel was optioned straight away, given the nature of its format.
Ann-Margret also has one of her meatier roles here in a career of sadly not enough of them: her turn in Carnal Knowledge is probably her greatest on-screen performance. Burgess Meredith is also having a blast in the role of an agent, and I’m sure he had met many “Ben Greenes” for inspiration in his long and varied career.
However, the film however never quite lives up to its horror genre elements. It’s still a pretty good film, especially with the strong performances from three main actors. Spielberg might have been a better choice as director, because especially in 1978 he knew how to make genre films, coming off Duel and Jaws it’s an interesting cinematic what-if? The score from Jerry Goldsmith is excellent, as always.
The disc includes a host of extras, including archival interviews with Hopkins, Goldman and cinematographer Victor Kemper. The rest of the extras include a make-up screen test for Ann-Margret, a radio interview with Hopkins, the trailer and a bunch of radio and TV spots.