Harry Houdini, the 19th century illusionist and escape artist, has been the subject of various biographies. Tony Curtis starred in a popular bio-flick in the early 1950s and for many contemporary viewers, that film remains the benchmark performance. Academy Award winner Adrien Brody stared in a two-part television mini-series, Houdini for the History Channel. (The production is now making its way to DVD.) Though it's more than 60 years later, the new Houdini doesn't rely on camera tricks to wow its audience, but on Brody's talent.
The set-up: Based on Bernard C. Meyer's book Houdini: A Mind in Chains : A Psychoanalytic Portrait, this is a look at not only what he did but why he did it. His drive to excel, we're alternately told, comes from his desire to escape the poverty he knew as a child, to win his overly strict father's approval, to outdistance the doubt and fear that plagued him throughout his adult life. Which is true? All of them, none of them. For the purpose of the mini-series, those reasons are as good as any others.
The two-part series follows Houdini as he moves from small time sideshows to bigger stages and better tricks, eventually becoming the most famed illusionist in the world . Along the way, we're shown the the physical workings of his marvelous escapes and illusions (the ingenious hiding places for keys to the handcuffs and locks, the fake floor that lets him pass "through" a brick wall). It satisfies our need to know, but also leaves us a bit disillusioned.The execution:
We have the disadvantage of knowing about Houdini's sad end which director Uli Edel foreshadows a bit too often. No matter how astounding each new illusion, each ever more daring escape, neither Houdini the character norHoudini
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the mini-series, ever escape the palatable sense of tragedy that looms over them both. It's a bittersweet experience for the viewer.
There are a few flaws in the production, though Brody's captivating performance overcomes them. (Director Edel wisely keeps him on-screen in almost every scene.) The pacing is a bit slow in spots. And the side story about Houdini's work as an American spy while touring Europe just before World War I seems underdeveloped and eventually at odds with his personality; how could a man who so craved the limelight do his most important work in complete secrecy? The costumes, sets, cinematography production values are all good -- although there does seem to be a "small screen" feeling to it all.
There are four extras on the DVD we saw; each much too short. Put all together, they constitute one barely long-enough mini-featurette. With so much material to pull from - on both Houdini and the actors in this production - it seems a shame not to have a more in depth look behind the scenes.
The verdict: If there's any magic in Houdini, it's Adrien Brody's performance. He gives an excellent, nuanced performance as the complicated and melancholy Houdini. True, he's surrounded by a strong supporting cast and given a visually lush landscape in which to exist, still, this is Brody's show. His intensity and commitment to the role elevate Houdini from just another television mini-series to a captivating, though ultimately unhappy, biography.