Beautifully made and felt, "The Escape Artist" launches the directing career of Caleb Deschanel, the gifted young cinematographer of "The Black Stallion" and "Being There," on an auspicious note.
Opening today at area theaters, "The Escape Artist" is a semi-ominous comic fable about a precocious kid, an extraordinary amateur magician named Danny Masters, the son of an ill-fated and perhaps felonious magician father once billed as "the greatest escape artist after Houdini."
Having run away from his legal guardian, a grandmother, Danny arrives in a mythical midwestern city called Harding, which consists of various locations in and around Cleveland chosen with remarkable evocative wit by Deschanel and production designer Dean Tavoularis; they could indicate a story taking place in the late '40s or early '50s as well as a story taking place in the present. The late-'40s hint is reinforced by Stephen Burum's richly saturated color photography, which recalls Deschanel's own lighting schemes for director Carroll Ballard in the last half of "The Black Stallion."
Danny, played by 14-year-old Griffin O'Neal, the younger brother of Tatum O'Neal and a far more intense, fascinating camera subject than his sister at any stage of her career, has an uncle and aunt in Harding. They're old show biz pros, keeping barely solvent by performing a mind-reading act in a second-rate nightclub. Aunt Sybil (Joan Hackett in a delightful and all-too-fleeting performance) welcomes Danny with sincere affection, but Uncle Burke (Gabriel Dell), a cynical failure hanging on by a slender professional thread, is more infuriated than anything else by the presumption of an eager, adept newcomer clamoring to break into show business. He also has reason to believe that Danny may reincarnate the trouble-seeking nature of his late father, a suspicion Danny certainly reinforces when he almost kills himself trying to duplicate dad's old escape routine while submerged and chained in a water tank.
Rebuffed by his uncle, Danny turns to an even less reliable sponsor, Raul Julia as the town's official Bad Boy, Stu Quinones, who is the wittily sarcastic but also dangerously cuckoo son of Mayor Quinones, a dapper crook portrayed by Desi Arnaz, who now bills himself as "Desiderio Arnaz" in endearing paternal deference to Desi Jr. Danny bumps into Stu in a Harding magic store (run by Jackie Coogan) and lifts Stu's wallet in retaliation for gratuitous abuse. Since the wallet was previously lifted by Stu from his father's safe and turns out to contain quite a bit of hot currency, its loss provokes a certain urgency in official circles. Entangled in the weirdly hostile conflict between crazy Stu and his crooked pop, Danny is obliged to use his skills in dangerous and illegal ways in order to get out of Harding alive.
While Danny's methods of extricating himself involve a good deal of pleasurable suspense and photogenic sleight-of-hand, one is still left with the vaguely dissatisfied feeling that a not quite identifiable myth is buried in his misadventures in search of a mentor. Up to a point, exquisitely realized in a dream sequence set in the jail, the myth appears to be connected with Danny's need to come into the legacy of his mysterious father. And up to a point "The Escape Artist" appears to be a parable about a child's social initiation, which requires insight into adult behavior, especially devious behavior, that even the most precocious talent may not prepare one for.
The movie suggests these themes, but it never quite completes them or pursues the implications to a conclusive, satisfying resolution. The ironies seem bewildering rather than revealing, in part because you tend to react to Julia and Arnaz as an outrageous, serendipitous comedy team whose animosities can't be taken in complete seriousness.
Deschanel and his collaborators evidently come by the confusion honestly. When one consults the source material, David Wagoner's 1967 novel, the same confusion trails in the wake of an intriguing, enjoyable reading experience. Faithful to a fault, the movie version of "The Escape Artist" adapts the material to a new medium without clarifying the built-in thematic enigma.
Still, although it leaves you puzzled, "The Escape Artist" is an accomplished and likable film. It's certainly one of the nicest moviegoing experiences that ever eluded analysis.