|If you dare doubt Tony Curtis is one of the most gorgeous movie stars - ever - you're CLEARLY OUT OF YOUR MIND!!!|
|Yeah, OK, Janet Leigh is HOT, too.|
dir. George Marshall
Starring: Tony Curtis,
Review By Greg Klymkiw
If you’re looking for a penetrating and even modestly accurate dramatic depiction of the life of Harry Houdini, the legendary escape artist, this is probably not it. If, however, you’re looking for a tremendous performance from a great star in his peak years, you could do a whole lot worse than Houdini. The handsome, virile Tony Curtis commands the screen so voraciously that it feels almost like a one-man show. It isn’t, however, since he’s supported by the mouth watering Janet Leigh as Houdini’s long-suffering and only moderately supportive wife.
Directed by the sturdy prolific hack George Marshall, Houdini is a strangely enjoyable Hollywood biopic. With a script by Philip (Broken Lance, Detective Story) Yordan, the movie, surprisingly, doesn’t have one of the strongest narrative arcs in the world. In spite of this, the picture delights since Marshall cannily keeps his camera trained, like a bee to a flower petal upon the gorgeous, talented Tony Curtis that much of the story, such as it is, hovers within his glorious realm in a sort of crazed adulatory perpetuum. Though the movie plays fast and loose with many of the actual details of Houdini’s life, one gets a strong sense of the man's drive and charisma and, in so doing, captures his mythic essence -- the myth and the mystery.
Part of Houdini’s considerable entertainment value is also due to the attention to production value from powerhouse producer George Pal who crammed the picture with as much wonder and star-power as could only come from the man who produced and/or directed some of the finest entertainments of the 50s including The Time Machine, Tom Thumb, War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide and, among others, that great series of animated Puppetoons that included the likes of Tubby the Tuba. It was Pal, no doubt, who saw what a perfect Houdini Tony Curtis would make.
Curtis plays the title character as a driven man – driven to romancing the woman of his choosing, driven to success and driven to seeking greater and more dangerous challenges. While Marshall doesn’t have much in the way of a distinctive directorial voice, he spent much of his career capturing star performances and exploiting them to the hilt. Much of Marshall’s best work was in comedy and he trained his workmanlike eyes on such stars as Bob Hope, Martin and Lewis and Jackie Gleason. He also had one great movie in him – Destry Rides Again, a terrific western with Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart, an oater that never fails to entertain.
Houdini begins with a typical Hollywood meet-cute wherein our title character catches a glimpse of the gorgeous Bess (Janet Leigh) from behind a circus sideshow cage where he is made-up grotesquely as a jungle wild man. He keeps wooing her in savage beast mode, but when she catches a glimpse of him without the makeup, she’s also smitten. How could she not be?They quickly marry and begin touring circuses and honky-tonk vaudeville houses as a husband and wife magic act. Soon, this life grows wearying for wifey and she begs her hunky hubbles to settle down and take a real job. He agrees, for a time, and toils, rather conveniently in a factory devoted to designing, building and selling locks and safes. Here he becomes obsessed with the notion of death-defying escapes, manages to convince the little lady wifey. Upon his re-entry into the world of show business, Houdini becomes bigger than he ever imagined was possible.
Marshall expertly handles the escape routines – so much so that even though WE know Houdini’s going to beat them hands-down, we still feel considerable suspense as each one is presented. A lot of the credit for the suspense generated in these scenes must go to Curtis and his performance – alternating as it does from boyish wonder to driven madman. Curtis plays Houdini as no mere entertainer, but someone who is not personally satisfied unless he is genuinely cheating death every step of the way.
Less successfully rendered is the annoying, obtrusive love story. It is a constant blessing that Janet Leigh is so easy on the eyes, for her character is not so easy on the ears. The character of Bess is almost harridan-like in her constant whining: “Harry, don’t do this. Harry, don’t do that. Harry, get a real job. Harry, I want a family. Harry, I want us to settle down. Harry, that’s too dangerous. Harry, you’re going to kill yourself. Harry, you love your stunts more than you love me.”
Nothing like a babe-o-licious harridan to keep a good man down.
Luckily, she doesn’t. The movie forges on with one daring stunt after another and luckily, one of Miss Leigh’s harridan-o-ramas is certainly not without entertainment value. The sequence involving Houdini’s preparations for his famous dip into the icy waters of the Detroit River are as hilarious as anything I’ve seen recently. Tony Curtis lying in a claw-footed bathtub covered in ice cubes whilst a team of men pour more bucket loads on top of him as wifey continues nagging at him, is not only funny, but chillingly (if you’ll forgive the pun) reminiscent of moments I and other men close to me (they know who they are) have experienced with their significant others at the most inopportune junctures.
Men who never grow up will always be boys.
Finally, I wish to divulge the weepy Hollywood ending which bears absolutely nothing close to the real Houdini’s death, but I won't - suffice it to say that Leigh removes the mask of the harridan long enough for Curtis to emote so expertly that it’s a tear-squirting corker of a finale.
And that is worthy of all the Technicolor glory lavished upon this lovely gem from a much simpler time.
The Film Corner Rating: *** 3 Stars
Houdini is available on DVD from Legend Films.
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