|Image Credit; Kate Gabrielle
Since Lord Attenborough passed away on the weekend the 15th Film4 Frightfest in London it seems only fitting to pay tribute with a look at a directorial effort that is as terrifying today as it was over 35 years ago.
Stars; Anthony Hopkins, Ann Margaret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter
Director; Richard Attenborough
Writer; William Goldman
Corky a ventriloquist and magician who is at the mercy of his mischievous doll escapes to the mountains to avoid a medical examination that would reveal his dark secret. There he is reunited with an old high school friend in an abusive marriage. However as Corky's safety becomes increasingly threatened so does the doll's deadly protective instincts.
Although Attenborough accepted directing duties for this film to help him finance the dream project that was to become the Oscar winning Ghandi (1982) the joy must have come from being reunited with writer Goldman, producer Joesph E Levine and star Hopkins all of whom worked together on the war movie A Bridge Too Far (1977). Based on Goldman's original novel Attenborough helmed a terrifying psychology thriller that showed just how masterful he was behind the camera, and for Hopkins it proved in hindsight to be the precursor for his most famous villainous turn as Hannibal Lecter.
Goldman's script is a terrifying story of one man's descent into an increasing gaping crevice of madness. That feeling of loss of control especially to a more dominant personality (even a seemingly wooden one) is something many audiences can relate to and as the interactions between Corky and his doll Fats (a multi-faceted chilling performance from Hopkins) intensify Goldman has created a disturbing scenario which with Attenborough then takes the viewer by the shoulders keeping their attention to the screen in tense anticipation of what follows. In his dual role as ventriloquist and the voice of his doll, Hopkins is incredibly engaging and charismatic. His seamless switch between the gentle harmless Corky to the malignant Fats is a true sign of thespian genius and so convincing one can't help but feel both empathy for Corky's plight but also fearful. The script certainly gives plenty of scope for Hopkins to shine as a character actor.
There is much deliberate ambiguity in the script and story as to whether Corky is suffering from multiple personality disorder & spiraling to a breakdown as a result, or in fact Fats is alive and controlling the controller. This seemingly reversal of roles is even more chilling under Attenborough's skillful direction and effective use of camera. Not since Hitchcock's psycho has an audience been terrified in this way and Attenborough captures the sinister dialogue between Corky and Fats to frightening effect. The trio of Attenborough, Goldman and Hopkins (along with amiable support) created probably one of the most scary films of the 20th Century. Its success lies in its simplicity which Attenborough used to great effect, and as a director who truly understood actors, he skillfully drew raw emotion from his players.
It is difficult to pick a defining moment from Magic, a standout scene that truly embodies the best aspects of the film and that showcase Attenborough's skillful direction. The scene below in which Corky's agent Ben Green (Burgess Meredith) walks in on Corky's argument with Fats perhaps encapsulates all the angles of the film perfectly such as the remote settings adding a claustrophic sense of isolation, the highly charged performance of Hopkins in the dual role, and the ambiguity of whether or not Fats is in fact alive. There is also the tense, and ultimately heart breaking moment between Corky and Green, with the latter serving as a reflection of the audience's reaction. Attenborough brings all this together in a scene that is truly one of the best in cinema.