40 Years Ago Today: The Escape Artist

Released nationwide throughout the U.S. 40 years ago today, a piece of cinema magic — and magic magic — called The Escape Artist (1982).

This little film was produced by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios. It shares something in common with that director/producer’s The Cotton Club (1984), in that, while the film is no masterpiece, if one is a show biz buff, one is compelled to watch it periodically anyway because of what it depicts and who is in it (old stars, future stars, and some VERY old time classic performers.) In the case of The Escape Artist, it is the final picture of Jackie Coogan, Desi Arnaz, Gabe Dell of the Bowery Boys, and Joan Hackett. The film also features Bowery Boy Huntz Hall in a small role, as a jailer. It contains the first starring turn of Griffin O’Neal (son of Ryan, brother of Tatum), four years before he killed Coppola’s son Gian-Carlo in a boating accident. It features the cinematic debut of magician-comedian-actor Harry Anderson, and also stars an early career Raul Julia and Teri Garr, both of whom were also in Coppola’s ill-fated musical One from the Heart the same year this film was released. (Garr had also been in Coppola’s The Conversation and was at the peak of her career at this time. The fact that her dad was in vaudeville, further burnishes this movie’s show biz sheen). Oh! and it’s got early career E.G. Daily (Dottie from Peewee’s Big Adventure, etc). There’s a cameo by Harry “Little” Caesar as a sax player. And Ricky Jay was an adviser.

O’Neal plays an orphaned kid who is a Houdini-style escape artist (a second generation one; Anderson plays his deceased dad in flashbacks). The kid runs away from his grandmother’s house and goes to live with his uncle and aunt (Dell and Hackett), who have a Zancig style mentalism act. In a magic shop he meets both Coogan and Julia — a nice little scene that gives us the inadvertent spectacle of the original Uncle Fester interacting with the Gomez Addams of the ’90s reboot! Julia plays the crazy criminal son of a crooked mayor (Arnaz). The rest of the plot concerns the growing relationship between the kid and Julia. The kid has swiped a wallet that Julia had stolen from his father, one that contains marked stolen bills. At times Julia seems strictly to want to retrieve the wallet; at other times he seems to be grooming the kid as a possible apprentice. So there are all these father-son resonances: the kid’s attempt to relive his father’s life; Julia’s acting out to get attention from his own father; and the relationship between the kid and Julia. And the kid’s magic and escapism skills constantly come into play; he’s constantly stealing things with his sleight of hand skills, or hiding in small places, or escaping from locked ones.

The film received mixed to poor reviews when it was released, and while I perceive its ostensible problems intellectually, I’d have to come down on the side of the many who have a cult-like devotion to it. The most obvious hitch in the storytelling is that though the tale is full of dangerous characters and elements, the movie somehow manages to lack tension and suspense. I think the root of it is the ambiguity of Julia’s character. He doesn’t play him as mean or scary, but seemingly friendly, if also unpredictable and neurotic. An occasional note of menace might have helped his performance along, but both he and Arnaz are just kind of warm and fuzzy and loveable in this movie. Many have praised the film’s music as well, although I would have the same criticism about it: it’s sweet and sad, as opposed to tension-invoking. However, one could argue that these qualities are the very ones that make many people passionately devoted to the film. It’s too sweet to dislike. And one could argue that it’s a bildungsroman about lies and trickery and fathers and sons, and NOT a suspense thriller. Does EVERYTHING have to be an action movie? But on the other hand, family films need tension, too. Certainly The Wizard of Oz has its harrowing moments. One reason that film is so affecting is Judy Garland’s naked, transparent emotionalism. Unfortunately, Griffin at 16 is not half the actor his sister was at 9, and that too is a drawback. The movie needs the kid’s performance to help sell it, and Griffin’s got more of a poker face, which could be right for the character but doesn’t help the movie any.

Another very strange thing about this movie is that it has ALL those stars we listed in the first paragraph, plus many other recognizable character actors (David Clennon, John P. Ryan, M. Emmet Walsh, Hal Williams, and, what the hell, Garry Marshall) and yet among them all, perhaps only Julia and O’Neal have enough screen time to truly justify their presence in the movie. Look: Coogan is on the poster above as though he’s a major character, but he’s only in one scene. Teri Garr was one of the hottest actresses on the planet in the early ’80s and she only has a handful of lines as Julia’s gun moll girlfriend. It’s almost like EVERY role in the film was cut way down. And it’s quite possible that that was the case. The film was actually shot in 1980 and not released until 1982. During the intervening time the film was cut, cut, and re-cut, and it shows strong symptoms of perhaps being overcut.

The Escape Artist is one of only two pictures directed by Caleb Deschanel, father of Zooey and Emily (Bones), who is ordinarily a cinematographer. (Amusingly, Zooey Deschanel reminds me a lot of the young E.G. Dailey, although they are entirely unrelated. Was E.G. Dailey her babysitter?) At any rate, now that it is 40 years old, the movie is a historical artifact of sorts. It captures a point in time when there were still show biz old-timers around and some of those old-time magic shops I wrote about here were still around. And the look of the night club where the uncle and aunt perform looks run-down and authentic (as opposed to a postmodern, campy re-creation, like the similar venue in 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, just five years later). It’s a little movie, but it’s one I’d gladly own or otherwise have perpetual access to so that I can periodically go back and re-watch it.

For more on show biz, vaudeville and the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,