Houdini: Water Torture in More Ways Than One

“You mean…I have to say THESE lines?”

Well, you might not be surprised to learn after all yesterdays hoopla that we were rather disappointed in the History Channel’s new bio-pic of Houdini starring Adrien Brody. “Junk” wouldn’t be too strong a word. It looked gorgeous, and that kept us on the hook for awhile, but we finally had to change the channel about halfway through the film.

I  don’t know why I was expecting better from the Hitler Channel, they’ve long since thrown all credibility out the window, but I was expecting more than the usual bio-pic mish-mash of conflations, omissions and inventions. The excellent Wild About Harry blog points out many (but by no means all) of the films lies, misrepresentations, and fictions here. But the inaccuracies are often subtler than mere factual changes — it’s a question of tone and suggestion. There is a big difference between, say, saying that when Houdini performed abroad in foreign capitals like Berlin and Moscow he may well have (as many prominent travelers did and do) brought back tidbits of information useful to our government AND….showing him in a series of clandestine meetings in a park with the head of MI5 as an official secret agent. And then to compound the simple-minded stupidity, to have Mr. Melville say “Think of me as in loco parentis…a kind of surrogate FATHER, if you will.” (Since we happen to be psychoanalyzing Houdini on the basis of daddy issues. )

And by the sin of omission the film gives the false impression that Houdini originated all of his stunts and tricks, whereas (like everyone who ever lived) what he really did was adapt and expand upon what came before — he learned from others, turned up the heat, and then branded the hell out of himself. The movie makes it seem like he invented the bullet catching trick for god’s sake (which he probably performed at some point but was never closely associated with, and certainly never performed for the Kaiser).

Like nearly everyone who’s played Houdini before (Tony Curtis, Paul Michael Glaser, Harvey Keitel), Brody makes the mistake of giving the Wisconsin-bred Houdini a New York accent. I suspect that there’s a theory that no one will believe Houdini is Jewish if he doesn’t sound like he came from New York, but must we ALWAYS cater to the morons of this world? And though he’s the wrong body type, Brody is clearly psyched to be playing this role, though there isn’t much of a role for him to play. It’s essentially a glorified re-enactment turn of the type we see on lots of history and reality programs. Surely an actor as good as this has better uses for his time and talent.

What the film does do repeatedly is reveal the secrets of many magic tricks and stunts, which is something others may want to see, but I never do. What’s the point of magic? Wonder is what keeps us going. If we already know all the secrets, the song is already sung, the tale is already told.

But what really drove me away ultimately was the obnoxious rock soundtrack which not only didn’t evoke the time period we were looking at, but tied my stomach in knots. It had me reaching for my nerve tonic, and it took two back to back episodes of The Bob Newhart Show for me to calm down.






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