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Houdini (1998)

This biopic of Harry Houdini starts off well. Johnathon Schaech presents an appealing lead; the choice of framing device is excellent; and Harry and Bess’ whirlwind courtship is engagingly depicted. Then it pivots, alarmingly so. Schaech’s portrayal turns Houdini into a boastful egotist; Bess becomes a badgering lush and, worst of all, the framing device concludes with a fantasy scene that flies in the face of everything Houdini stood for.

After a gritty reenactment of a prison break, Houdini flashes forward to the tenth anniversary of the escapologist’s death. Bess has organised one last séance to see if she can contact her husband’s spirit. As the medium gathers mementos from Houdini’s family and friends, the biopic journeys back to tell his life story. Introduced to the world of magic by his brother Theo (Mark Ruffalo in an early role), no sooner do the two work up an act than Harry falls for fellow performer Bess. The husband and wife team flail about in vaudeville’s backwaters until Houdini convinces theater owner Martin Beck that audiences will flock to his show if he convinces them that he is cheating death.

Like The Great Houdini, this made-for-TV movie has a fine supporting cast. Apart from the aforementioned Mark Ruffalo it includes George Segal, Paul Sorvino, Ron Perlman and a young Emile Hirsch. Unfortunately, after a promising beginning, it too devolves into a turgid affair. Surprisingly, this dreariness extends to the stage performances, where Schaech grunts and groans and screams at his audience in a manner totally devoid of charm. 


Though the timepiece accompanying each act was designed to heighten the tension, here it just underscores the slow pace of the film.

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Johnathon Schaech, Harry Houdini, Stacy Edwards, Bess Houdini
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Rather than being conducted in a theatre where Houdini once performed, the séance held on the tenth anniversary of his death occurred atop the roof of Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel in front of an invitation-only audience of 300.

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