During his lifetime Orson Welles appeared in many films of other directors to earn money to finance his own projects. Some of those films were horrible, some contained some of his best performances. I always have felt his best performance in a non-Welles film is in Compulsion. Many would hold out for The Third Man. But I think some would say that his portrayal of Cagliostro the great mountebank of the 18th century would get a few votes.
The opening scene and dialog with Berry Kroeger and Raymond Burr as Alessandro Dumas Senior and Junior is an interesting well acted scene. Kroeger has set out to write a novel based on Cagliostro, but he cannot get a handle on the character. A common complaint with authors trying to reach a goal.
The real Cagliostro's character would probably rate a mini-series. This guy was some piece of work. The affair of the diamond necklace as portrayed here was only one chapter in Cagliostro's life. Failing as the senior Dumas said he was doing he wrote a novel with some plot elements from previous work like The Three Musketeers and The Man In The Iron Mask.
As a child Joseph Balsamo aka Cagliostro saw his gypsy mother executed for practicing black arts by Stephen Bekassy the local prefect, a skill which he inherited. His natural abilities as a hypnotist were developed with study under Dr. Mesmer played here by Charles Goldner. But like characters in stories involving superheroes Orson Welles as the grown up Balsamo now stylizing himself as Cagliostro is ready to make a name for himself.
Bekassy has also risen in power and influence and he's got some intrigue going. Welles whom he does not recognize is part of his plan, but Orson has some plans of his own.
Part of those plans involve Nancy Guild who plays the dual role of a girl from out of town and the Queen of France herself Marie Antoinette. Guild does equally well as the girl in love with soldier Frank Latimore the nominal hero of the film. As Marie Antoinette she's not as noble as Norma Shearer in the same part, but no doubt she's royal personage used to royal prerogatives. I do love the scene where Guild gives Madame DuBarry played by Margot Grahame the old fashioned heave ho.
The real Cagliostro died in 1795 surviving the King and Queen of France and he left the mortal coil in Rome. But Black Magic is the kind of film that makes you wish what happens here is true. Orson Welles has so many emotions working at once in the title role, greed, revenge, lust and a spark of a little boy whose mother was taken from him. Note also good performances by Akim Tamiroff and Valentina Cortese as the gypsy confederates of Cagliostro. Cortese is carrying one big old freedom torch for Welles, but he's no time for her, eyes on the prize as it were the prize being the power behind the throne of France.
Quite a few people will see Black Magic as Orson Welles's best performance in a non-Orson Welles film.
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