The Mad Magician

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday January 17, 2017

The Mad Magician

The 3D craze of the 1950s threw up some... well... interesting stuff, but also some noteworthy projects, among them the 1954 John Brahm-directed thriller "The Mad Magician," re-released now on a sparkling Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time.

The production transports us to a world of hansom cabs, elegant evening dress (lavish gowns for the ladies, tuxes for the men), newfangled technology like telephones and fingerprinting, and gorgeously composed back and white cinematography by Bert Glennon.

The high-concept story is similarly vibrant in its lurid excesses: Don Gallico (Vincent Price) is a brilliant inventor in the field of stage magic who has ambitions to forge his own career as an illusionist, only for his dreams to be dashed by a money-hungry boss, a ruthless competitor, and an ill-advised contract that requires him to surrender all of his ideas to his employer. It's the last straw: After all, his boss, a soulless leech of a man named Ross Ormond (Donald Randolph) has stolen everything else of value from Gallico, including his faithless ex-wife, Claire (Eva Gabor).

What good is a big buzz saw contraption or a miniature crematorium if they can't be used in one's own stage extravaganza? Gallic arrives at a splendid alternative: Revenge!

More or less a quickie haircut of 1953's "House of Wax" -- lifting the general plot, the producer, he screenwriter, and the star from that color hit -- this black and white chill-fest is fraught with horrors and laughs in equal measure. Of course, the laughs are often deliberate; this is, after all, a story about a badly-used employee taking gruesome vengeance, only for a meddling mystery novel writer (Lenita Lane) and a forward-thinking police officer (Patrick O'Neal) to start hounding him. Gallico's cool, methodical approach to his work is nothing if not stylish, which makes his eventual plunge into wild, laughing madness all the richer. For the most part, the film has aged well; we might find some of its conventions quaint (super-lifelike masks come into play, and the female characters, including one played by the lovely Mary Murphy, start screaming in helpless horror at the drop of a corpse), but it's easier to laugh with this movie than at it.

This release offers several spacial features of note, including two Three Stooges 3D shorts, "Pardon My Backfire" (hapless grease monkeys tangle with escaped convicts in their hazard-filled garage) and "Spooks!" (private detectives search for a missing girl in a mad scientist's secret lair, outfitted to mimic a haunted house). Unlike the feature attraction, the short films have grown dated, with even the 3D shots now looking clumsy and far too overt, and that's based on a viewing in the standard two dimensions.

Also featured: An isolated track for Arthur Lange and Emil Newman's score, a commentary track with Twilight Time regular David Del Valle and Steven Peros chatting about the athletic Vincent Price, the other talents behind the film, and various anecdotes from the production. Julie Kirgo, as usual, provides the liner notes, crafting an entertaining and informative essay.

I don't have the equipment for home 3D viewing, and have no idea how this Blu-ray is formatted to allow for it; there's no obvious selection for it on the home menu, and the disc plays like any standard 2D release, looking just great in a 1080 hi-def presentation, so don't give this title a miss based on the 3D gimmick.

"The Mad Magician"



Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.