Houdini may not have a great deal to do with the actual life and career of Harry Houdini but it’s wonderful entertainment nonetheless, mostly due to Tony Curtis’s dazzling performance.
We begin with the young Harry Houdini, eking out a living in carnival sideshows but with grandiose ambitions. His attempts to romance Bess (Janet Leigh) seem doomed to failure but if something seems impossible Hioudini simply sees it as a challenge to overcome. He wins Bess but he’s still a distinctly small-time magician.
And now he has a wife who would really prefer him to have a regular job. He gives in and gets a job at a safe factory but he is never going to give up his dreams. His big chance comes at a magicians’ Halloween dinner when he accepts a challenge to escape from a straitjacket. The prize being offered is quite substantial because no-one has ever succeeded in escaping from a straitjacket before. Harry of course succeeds.
Houdini’s career almost crashes in London when he accepts a challenge to escape from an English prison. What he doesn’t know is that this English prison has a security system quite different from an American prison. It really is escape-proof. Or at least it was escape-proof until Houdini came along.
Houdini achieves success in Europe but finds he has to start all over again when he returns to the US. By this time however he has perfected the art of the publicity stunt and he is soon an even bigger star in his home country.
Whether the real Houdini was a man half in love with death is debatable but his film counterpart certainly seems to be. Of course a movie has to have some kind of theme and in this case it’s Houdini’s determination to go on taunting death.
Janet Leigh gives a fine performance in difficult circumstances - the difficulty being that the screenplay can’t make up its mind whether Bess is to be a supportive wife or whether she is to be the kind of wife who thwarts her husband at every opportunity. As a result Leigh has to change gears constantly and we never really get a handle on what makes Bess tick.
Director George Marshall doesn’t try anything fancy. He doesn’t need to do - the story is colourful enough, he has two charismatic stars and to add cinematic trickery to the magic tricks would just cheapen them. The best approach was the one Marshall chose - just point the camera at Tony Curtis and let him do his stuff. Philip Yordan’s screenplay is rather disjointed. Mostly it seems to be an excuse to string together a series of Houdini’s most celebrated magic tricks. Oddly enough it’s an approach that works quite well. The focus is mainly on Houdini’s career rather than his personal life, which is just as well because whenever the focus does switch to his personal life the movie gets a lot less interesting.
It’s probably better to consider this as a movie inspired by the life of Houdini rather than as an attempt to give us any kind of insight into the great magician’s actual life. If you’re prepared to accept that then there’s plenty to enjoy here. Tony Curtis gives one of his career-best performances and the chemistry between Curtis and Leigh is terrific. Even if it takes extreme liberties with the truth Houdini is perhaps the right kind of movie tribute to the greatest magician of them all, magic being all about illusion after all. Highly recommended.