William Goldman's novel "Magic" eventually collapsed for want of storytelling finesse and momentum. Goldman had a gimmick - in the form of a premise borrowed from the 1945 British horror movie "Dead of Night" - but not enough literary tricks up his sleeve to exploit it effectively.
The film version, directed by Richard Attenborough from Goldman's screenplay, seems nakedly exposed from the outset. It is utterly dependent on clever plotting, and it never gets off the dramatic sickbed.
The infirmity is magnified by the casting of Anthony Hopkins, invariably an eyesore when he's expressing emotional stress, as the mentally disturbed protagonist, a professional magician-ventriloquist who comes homicidally unglued while struggling to salvage what remains of his sanity.
"Dead of Night" was an anthology of supernatural and horror stories culminating in a phantasmagoric summation and an ironic fadeout, implying that a nightmare which seemed to have ended was about to begin for real .
In perhaps the most impressive and best remembered episode, Michael Redgrave gave a stunning performance as a schizophrenic ventriloquist. Insecure to the point of paranoia, he suspects that his dummy may be attracted to or stolen by a professional rival.Eventually this fear drives him to attempt to murder the rival and then destroy the dummy. When last seen in the madhouse, he has submerged his own identity in the personality of the dummy.
The Redgrave episode lasted perhaps 20 minutes. It was an expertly calculated vignette, a stylish exercise in expressionistic psychological terror.
Obviously derivative but just as obviously uninspired, "Magic" plods on disconsolately for around 100 minutes, unrelieved by a single clever plot twist or the slightest credible suggestion that the protagonist, a timid sort whose aggressions surface in the jokes of his dummy, might stand a chance against oncoming madness. Hopkins looks as far-gone as Michael Moriarty in "Report from the Commissioner." There's no struggle left in such self-evidently woebegone, helpless creatures. Their faces are wastelands rather than battlefields.
It's not morbidly or esthetically fascinating to watch Hopkins break down on the screen, in part because his character's breakdown seems to have occurred long before the movie begins. Far from being moved, you feel as if you have missed the starting time.
Casting Hopkins as a valiant paratroop commander in "A Bridge Too Far," Attenborough seemed to relieve him of his customary neurotic jumpiness and despondency. Now he's back in the neurotic soup again, struggling to sustain a characterization that veers from panicky to berserk over feature-length. Incredibly, this limited, self-defeating role was widely misconstrued as an acting plum. What was there to look forward to? Cracking the skulls of imagined enemies with a ventriloquist's dummy? Struggling in the water with not-quite-dead victims?
Goldman doesn't give his collaborators much help. The plot coughs and sputters like a sick engine. You're too conscious of the mechanical problems to get involved in the ostensible psychological tension. With his career supposedly on the ascendant, the protagonist bolts when informed by his manager, Burgess Meredith in a hammy impression of a show-biz shrewdie, that he'll have to take a medical exam before signing a lucrative network contract. Evidently fearing that his schizy tendencies will be exposed, Hopkins flees and takes refuge at a small resort in the Catskills owned by his old high school dreamgirl, Ann-Margret.
The flight itself is a little hard to fathom. Do the networks subject potential performers to intense psychological scrutiny? Is the protagonist's apprehension justified or just conveniently paronoid for plot purposes? Once in seclusion, Hopkins begins renewing acquaintance with Ann-Margaret, whose marriage to the high school dreamboy, destined to turn up in the unlikely person of Ed Lauter, hasn't been everything she dreamed of.
The movie seems to be shifting from "Dead of Night" to "If Ever I See You Again," a horror vehicle of a different kind. Retrieving the thread, Goldman brings back Meredith, whose insistence that Hopkins seek psychiatric help provokes him to homicide. Between killings and body disposals, Hopkins keeps urging Ann-Margaret to run away with him. First she thinks she will and then she won't. Moments before she finally makes up her fluffy mind in favor of the poor protagonist, he has snuffed out himself, setting up one of the funniest anticlimactic fadeouts I've ever observed.
In short, "Magic" is unworthy of its name. It's frightfully feeble and obvious. Although he resorts to bits from "Psycho" and "Diabolique" in order to keep the plot staggering forward, Goldman seems to overlook a potentially amusing twist: using Ann-Margret like the Anthony Perkins character in "Psycho." The reunion of two schizos might have sparked some fireworks.
Sometimes it's not enough to have a gimmick.