Houdini (1953) – Film Review
Director: George Marshall
Cast: Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Torin Thatcher
By Sarah Morgan
The term ‘renaissance man’ (or woman) is bandied about quite regularly to describe a polymath, someone who is accomplished in many fields.
He’s best known today for being a magician and an escapologist, but did you know he was also an actor, a pioneering aviator, amateur historian, businessman and inventor? If your answer is “no”, don’t expect to learn more about it from director George Marshall’s 1953 biopic.
But don’t let that put you off, because despite missing out large chunks of its subject matter’s accomplishments – and playing fast and loose with the events it does depict – there’s still something rather charming about the entire production, due in part to its two central performers.
Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh were married at the time the movie was made; she was, in fact, a bigger star than him back then, although he undoubtedly has the starring role here. He also hoped proving his dramatic chops would open up new doors for him. It didn’t, and he’ll forever be associated with comedies such as Some Like It Hot – which should be no hardship. Still, he is impressive here, and wouldn’t better his performance (in terms of dramatic power) until 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success.
The story covers the years between the 1890s, when Houdini met and married his wife Bess following a whirlwind romance, and his premature death in 1926 at the age of 52. In between we witness his rise to fame, reconstructions of some of his most famous stunts, and his efforts to expose fake spiritualists.
As you would expect from a big studio biopic made in the early 1950s, it’s all good, clean fun, with much of the emphasis on the love affair between Houdini and Bess – perhaps the film-makers thought audiences would be thrilled by the idea of witnessing the chemistry between a real-life couple.
Whatever the reason, it’s a decent introduction to an extraordinary man for anybody unaware of his myth. If you’re looking for a more in-depth, fact-based exploration, then the 2015 mini-series starring Adrien Brody will be closer to the mark. But if escapism (of the entertainment kind, rather than that espoused by Houdini himself), then this is for you.