15 April 2006 | Bunuel1976
THE MAGICIAN (Rex Ingram, 1926) ***
Until a few months ago, when Michael Elliott added it to his list of films watched to be exact, I was under the impression that this was a lost title a view which was certainly true till the late 70s since Carlos Clarens, in his wonderful 1967 "Horror Movies" book, called it "probably the most elusive of lost movies" and even Leslie Halliwell, in the 1977 edition of his famous "Film Guide", gives it as unavailable for reappraisal! Indeed, virtually the only way I had previously known this film was via one intriguing still of the Hades sequence found in the section devoted to director Rex Ingram in the periodical "The Movies" (published in the early 80s)
so, it's great that THE MAGICIAN has eventually seen the light of day (albeit unofficially) and, thankfully, it lives up to its considerable reputation to my eyes, at least.
Ingram was one of Silent cinema's master visual stylists but is now a forgotten figure best-known for the Rudolph Valentino version of THE FOUR HORSEMAN OF THE APOCALYSE (1921); his retirement from films once Talkies came in suggests that, like D.W. Griffith, he was unable to adapt to the ongoing progress in cinematic technique and, indeed, his films like Griffith's have an inherently stilted quality to them which dates his output more than those of contemporary auteurs! Anyway, this was my fourth Ingram movie after the interesting THE CONQUERING POWER (1921), the fine if somewhat underwhelming THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1922) and the rousing SCARAMOUCHE (1923); unfortunately, my copy of MARE NOSTRUM (1926) recorded off TCM UK got erased by accident before I had the opportunity to watch it. Alice Terry, Ingram's wife, appeared in 15 of his films and here plays the distressed virginal heroine who's the prime ingredient for the experiment concocted by the magician of the title (Paul Wegener). The latter, best-known for his three "Golem" pictures made at the height of the "German Expressionist" movement, makes for an overwhelmingly menacing villain although I found his being a medical student quite amusing (Wegener was 52 at the time of filming!). By the way, the character of Oliver Haddo was based by novelist W. Somerset Maugham on notorious English Occultist and writer Aleister Crowley! The film, an MGM production but shot in France (where Ingram lived), is ostensibly a variation on the Frankenstein myth with a few Svengali overtones thrown in for good measure; interestingly, Paul Wegener would star in an official version of that one in Germany the following year. Ingram's assistant director was the future iconoclastic English film-maker, Michael Powell, who also appears unbilled in a snake-charming sequence around the middle of the film! As expected, the film is pictorially quite stylish (shot by frequent Rex Ingram, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder lenser, John F. Seitz), especially in the fantasy sequence set in Hades which must surely have left an indelible impression on Ingram's production manager here, Harry Lachman, to refer back to it when he came to direct the Spencer Tracy version of DANTE'S INFERNO (1935) and the finale set in a laboratory on a remote mountaintop, which uncannily prefigures (literally step by step) the similar climax at the end of James Whale's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)!; as a matter of fact, Wegener even has a dwarfish assistant a' la Dwight Frye in Whale's FRANKENSTEIN (1931) so, it's very possible that Whale had seen Ingram's film.
One is all the more grateful, then, that a print of THE MAGICIAN has survived since it helps throw more light on the influences behind the greatest horror film ever made (which also happens to be my all-time favorite film)