Tony Curtis stars as the legendary magician and escapologist whose most remarkable feat is being the only Victorian-era entertainer to remain a household name into the 21st century.
This biopic is a whistle-stop tour of his life, from meeting future wife and assistant Bess (played by Curtis’s real-life other half Janet Leigh) through his travels in Europe to his later years as a world-famous performer. But the speed at which this happens makes it feel like hurried Houdini.
The best scenes are the escapes, with some impressive set pieces, although it would have been nice if some of the simpler tricks had been done in camera to avoid jarring cuts mid-scene. But there’s definite suspense to be found, in particular during escapes from an icy river and an on-stage finale in a giant tank.
But in spite of this it never manages to unlock the secrets to Houdini’s success or break into his mind, focusing instead on his relationship with his wife. This is a shame because Leigh’s Bess is a terribly written character.
She’s given no friends, family, interests or characteristics beyond being pretty and accidentally ending up at Houdini performances on numerous occasions. She marries him and immediately becomes the nay-saying wife, annoyed that the magician she married wants to make his living as a magician (the real life Bess was already a performer when they met).
Houdini’s life is perfect for a film, thanks to the highly visual and tense nature of his craft, and the tragic poetry of his death (which isn’t seen here). But in spite of good moments, Houdini doesn’t do it justice, and if you want to know more about the great man you’re better off holding a séance.
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