Something Up His Sleeve

Black Magic is Fun.  Dumb, cheesy fun, but fun all the same.  Its star, Orson Welles, once said he had the most fun ever making this film, and (out of the many hazy, vague, doubtful, and fact-bending statements made by Welles throughout his life and career) I believe him in this.

Which just might go to show that simple pleasures (such as this film) are sometimes the best.

Released in 1949, Black Magic was filmed in Italy, during that era when Welles was busily racketing around Europe and taking the odd acting job—The Black Rose, Prince of Foxes, a little item called The Third Man—to finance his filming of Othello.  Some of these films are also cheesy Fun, by the way:  Prince of Foxes is a hoot—Welles flaunts his considerable stuff as Cesare Borgia, his old Mercury Theater alum Everett Sloane hams it up an assassin, and both seem to be having a ball—while The Black Rose lets Welles chew swaths of scenery as an improbable Oriental warlord.  If Rose is not quite as high on the Fun register as Foxes or Magic, that may be due to Welles’ having a smaller role in it; that, plus Tyrone Power’s ghastly Anglo-Saxon haircut, as well as a pouty lead actress who looks about 12 years old (and acts it, too), and whose childish mien always leave me pursing my lips whenever I watch.  Maybe if Welles had had the bad haircut my lips would have been spared such squeezing, but I’m willing to take Welles bald and in rompers, if necessary.  Just for Fun.

The one moral to take away from all this is:  For a Fun film, bring on Welles.  Plenty of Welles.  As I noted in my earlier post here, about a dumb little movie called Trent’s Last Case, it’s only during the last third, when Welles swaggers on in all his cigar-puffing, fake-nosed glory, that the film becomes in the least bit watchable (as Pauline Kael once noted, what else could Welles do with such roles except play them for comedy?).  Fortunately, Black Magic ladles on enough Welles to satisfy us hard-core addicts, allowing us to dip repeatedly into (if I may make the pun) the Well of our cravings and satisfy our needs.

Black Magic’s official director is Gregory Ratoff (a Welles pal) but you can clearly detect Welles taking charge behind the scenes he’s in.  Note how he uses the whole landscape within the film frame, creating tension between foreground and background, such as the camera swinging round and tracking into a close-up of his face and then back out again to show how relations between actors have changed.  All captured in a long take, typical of his cinematic economy.  And there’s one fabulous traveling shot, when Welles’s character enters the court of the French king, the camera following as he weaves, winds, twists, and snakes his way through a maze of courtiers (flanking his progress like shoals of herring), then finishing up with an upward tilt to view a ceiling graced by bas-reliefs of writhing cherubs.  One can only marvel at—or maybe bemoan—the depth of Welles’s cinematic mastery on display here, even in this piece of toasted cheese, where such bravura moments could appear, like jewels scattered from a broken necklace.  The brilliant bits are there, though the whole design no longer coheres..

The story proper has Welles as the real-life 18th-century magician, mesmerist, and con artist Cagliostro, and you know right off why he found Magic fun.  An amateur magician himself (he performs magic tricks in the film), Welles was also fascinated with con artists (F for Fake) as well as with powerful, scheming men (too obvious to note).  His Cagliostro is a snake-oil-selling gypsy obsessed with revenging himself on the sadistic French aristocrat (Stephan Bekassy) who, years back, hanged his parents.  Realizing he can use his hypnotic gifts to make money as a “healer,” Cagliostro acquires wealth and influence by mesmerizing the rich and powerful out of their ills and purses, allowing him to live in a style (reflected in the movie’s sumptuous sets and costumes) to which we could all easily become accustomed.

It’s here the plot, as they say, thickens, like a stirred fondue.  Cagliostro meets a stupid young innocent (poor Nancy Guild, looking utterly clueless about what she’s doing) who’s an exact double for Queen Marie Antoinette.  Now Cagliostro’s vengeance intrigue hits high gear as he teams up with the same nasty aristocrat he’s been out to ruin, the pair scheming to use the girl to overthrow the queen.  Putting the girl under his power via hypnosis, the magician falls heedlessly in love with her; while the haughty aristo has no idea that his rich, elegant partner was once the dirty peasant boy whose family he murdered.  Thus are the traps set, and thus we watch, for that touch on the spring that will carry Cagliostro to the heights of power, if all goes according to plan…

And what a guilty pleasure it is to watch—like indulging in a favorite tuna-and-cheese-melt sandwich with all the trimmings.  Tossed into such a mix are historical characters (Anton Mesmer, Madame du Barry, Louis XV and XVI) and real events such as the Affair of the Necklace, all of which touch on historical fact only now and then, the way a ball bounces down a flight of stairs, hitting every other step.  Meanwhile, Berry Kroeger and Raymond Burr as, respectively, Alexandre Dumas père and fils (the story is based on one by Dumas Sr.), discuss their recent literary efforts, with Fils all agog to hear about Père’s latest work, since “I inflicted my novel Camille on you last week.”  (At one point the camera gazes, as if also hypnotized, at a shelf filled with Pop Dumas’s novels—The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Corsican Brothers—and you realize that all these books have been made, countless times, into movies.)  It’s the kind of imagined ‘history,’ made of chutzpah and cheesecloth, that could only have come out of Old Hollywood.

It was also the Hollywood that Welles wanted to get away from, to make his own kind of film, but which, as flicks like Magic, Rose, and Foxes attest, he had to keep mucking about in, so he could make, out of whatever scraps of time, money, and talent he could patch together, works like Othello and Chimes at Midnight.  So Welles gave the studios just enough of what they wanted from him, and that was:  Orson Welles.  He may have had his limits as an actor, but, like the hedgehog, he knew one great thing about himself and he did it superbly—he knew how to be “Orson Welles,” and to play it with panache.  Though not physically graceful, Welles would use his bulk, his stance, the very width of his shoulders, to dominate screen space; and then he would take that big, deep, echoing voice of his and, in sly contrast, drop it down, to a hush, a whisper, a purr, so that we are compelled to listen, we lean in to hear what he has to say.  Welles may have thought (rightly) these roles to be comic, but he had enough acting savvy to bend, stretch, and mold these parts into a convincing facsimile of what studios and the public thought they were getting.  They were getting ORSON WELLES—and what could be more fun than that?

And you have to admire what Welles does onscreen, how he can ham it up and ratchet up the fun through sheer underplaying.  There’s nothing bombastic about his acting in Magic; he doesn’t bellow or strut like Laughton, nor fling himself about in abandon like Olivier; but he’s steals every scene he’s in (and he bulges his eyes like Lugosi in White Zombie; they even float across the screen!), and then he tucks this film into his back pocket and walks away with it.  Despite the imprimatur of Great Artist that, like a wilted laurel, hung about Welles throughout his life (and which must have often felt like a stranglehold), there are times I suspect that he just might have been made for guff like this.

BONUS CLIP:  Get your Welles fix here!  Click here to see Black Magic in its delightfully cheesy full, while it’s available.  Since when can you ever get enough of cheese?

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