This film did a good job creating the atmosphere of the turn-of-the-century show business world Houdini moved in when getting his start. I had high hopes at the beginning, which covers his early career performing with his brother, then later with his young wife, Bess, as they go from one fleabag music hall to another looking for their big break. Jonathan Schaech is very convincing in his portrayal of Houdini as a consummate professional and egoist, driven to succeed and be the very best at what he does. The movie starts to lose focus at the moment Houdini's career takes off; from this point on, it takes on a soap-operaish tone as it turns its attention away from his performing and towards his private life. The Great Mystifier turns into a slightly pathetic character, torn between his inflexible mother and his grouchy wife, and his fascinating career recedes into the background, where it serves as a mere backdrop to the story of his troubled relationship with Bess. Not only do the filmmakers ignore Houdini's unique position in the world of the theatre in favour of a rather hackneyed romantic drama, they go on to change the facts to fit their theme. Bess was not a perpetual wet blanket on Houdini's career; she was a theatre performer herself, and she often worked as his assistant. Though she must have been anxious for his success and safety in his work, it is inaccurate to portray her as frequently on her knees in a Catholic church, like the wife of a mafia don, imploring divine intercession to help an unendurable situation. By all accounts theirs was a generally happy marriage. Nor was Houdini's brother the incompetent and failure he is portrayed as here; as Hardeen, he was himself a successful magician, though never as celebrated as his older brother.
But these failures are as nothing compared with the ending, which completely turns on its head everything we know about Houdini, and depicts a seance succeeding in bringing back his spirit after death. It is well known that seances conducted for several years after his death were a complete failure, and Houdini himself had only scorn for the spiritualistic frauds who preyed upon the public. It is even more confusing to have the seance succeed, when at the same moment it is being proved that the medium in charge is a phony. I think that, in the end, the film makers simply did not know what really to make of Houdini, and threw everything they could lay their hands on at him, hoping that something would stick. A film with lots of opportunities, most of them missed.
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