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More than a Knock-Off

I was just a little disappointed in the plot of The Mad Magician (1954). At first I took myself to task for lamenting the movie I wanted to see rather than enjoying the movie I did see. Then I thought maybe I could write a story using the plot I’d been hoping for. What plot was that, you may ask. I say, nice try! You’re not stealing my plot ideas! In fact, I’ve said too much already.

Enough of that nonsense. Let’s talk about The Mad Magician, starring Vincent Price, another Halloween movie presented by TCM which awaited me on my DVR. Oh yeah, before I forget:

Spoiler Alert! I’m getting a little bored with these spoiler alerts, are you? But this is one where you seriously might want to watch the movie before reading about it.

In pre-movie commentary, Ben Mankiewicz tells us the plot. Price is an inventor of illusions for other magicians. When his own chance for fame is cruelly snatched from his grasp, he goes mad and seeks revenge. The movie followed House of Wax, Price’s first horror film. Both movies were in 3D, a feature completely lost on television viewers. That hardly matters: moth movies are very enjoyable.

Magician follows a rule I once read: Audiences want the same thing, only different. A lot of elements are the same. Price starts out as a dreamy, creative genius who turns murderous once his dreams are destroyed. He was dreamier in Wax, and he was destroyed physically, which accounted for both his method and his madness. I thought in Magician he was more murderous than mad. Of course, a murderous Vincent Price is always worth a watch.

Leonard Maltin calls Magician a knock-off of Wax (Leonard Maltin’s 2011 Movie Guide, Signet, 2010). I can see that, but, really, this is a plot line that is used often and to good effect. Somebody does a guy dirt. The guy seeks revenge. It worked in The Count of Monte Cristo. It worked in Sweeney Todd (the stage play; hated the movie). I won’t even begin to list all the more recent movies, books and graphic novels that use it, but that might be a fun game at your next party, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Getting back to our movie, one addition is that Price has a wife that betrays him. She’s played by the delightful Eva Gabor and is quite a different character from her Lisa on Green Acres.

Another fun character is the gossipy writer from whom Price rents a room. Only she thinks he’s… well, that would be giving away an important plot development. She was my favorite character, not surprisingly, as I fancy myself a writer. Also, she is far from a useless movie female, but is very instrumental in moving things along.

The movie does make use of a hoary make-up cliche: you can use prosthetics and masks to completely transform yourself into another person. Oh, don’t spout “suspension of disbelief” at me. Some things are easier to swallow than others (although “swallow” and “suspend” is kind of mixing metaphors, isn’t it?). In this case, there is at least an explanation for the impersonations and Price’s talent is important to the plot.

I recommend The Mad Magician. It might be fun to watch it on a double bill with House of Wax and list every parallel. My favorite was the final joke involving a head. I thought the one in Magician was funnier, but spoiler alert notwithstanding, I don’t want to give it away.

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