HOUDINI on The History Channel
Pros: Nice photography; sharp-looking production
Cons: Very crudely made, with a frankly horrible script and sloppy direction
After what’s seemed like a media blitzkrieg in recent weeks, History Channel unveiled the first installment of its two-part biographical miniseries Houdini on Monday, September 1, 2014. Considering all the hype, the finished product seems both rushed and dubious in terms of its presentation of the world’s most famous magician and illusionist. Born Erich Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1874 and immigrating to the United States so that his father could become the rabbi of a congregation in Wisconsin, Weisz took up the name of “Harry Houdini” (a sort of homage to French magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin) and became a traveling magician on the carny circuit, debuting as a magician in 1891. By the end of the decade, Houdini (married to a fellow performer named Bess who had taken over as his assistant) had gained fame for his ability to escape from handcuffs and jail cells, often staging these demonstrations publicly.
Houdini, the man…
The Houdini miniseries chronicles the major events of the magician’s life, starting with a haphazard retelling of his childhood. From here, the narrative skips around a bit and focuses largely on the development and execution of Houdini’s trademark escapes, including ones where he escaped from the inside of a steel milk container, from inside a safe, and even from a “Chinese Water Torture Chamber” while being suspended upside-down. This first episode also devotes time to detailing the relationship between Houdini and his wife Bess, but this is one of the areas where the program seems to go a little astray.
…and a progression of screen representations. Adrien Brody on far right.
In my mind, the writer here (Nicholas Meyer, perhaps best known as the writer and/or director of several of the Star Trek films) has taken some pretty extensive liberties in telling this story – and seems to have had an ulterior motive to reveal the secrets behind as many magic tricks as possible, thus violating the cardinal rule of magicians. Houdini seems heavily dramatized to the point where one could make a strong case for this being a presentation of revisionist history. Officially based on Bernard C. Meyer’s 1976 book Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait, Nicholas Meyer’s script very much plays out in that sort of manner, more focused on what’s going on in Houdini’s head than on accurately portraying the events of his life. This tactic becomes especially noticeable during a few scenes (which will undoubtedly interest students of Freud) in which Houdini’s father intrudes on the narrative as a threatening figure. Personally, I found these attempts to delve into Houdini’s mindset to be thoroughly distracting: a sequence in which Houdini attempts to “catch” a bullet fired from a musket in his teeth becomes hilariously overblown when the German soldier shooting the firearm suddenly transforms into a hallucination of Houdini’s father. Subtlety is not one of this film’s strong points.
Wife Bess (Kristen Connolly) and Houdini (Adrien Brody) on stage.
Houdini plays out as if Meyer and director Uli Edel (whose filmmaking career has been all over the place since the genuinely excellent German-made 1983 coming of age film Christiane F.) are making this into one big, painfully predictable soap opera. I’m not by any stretch an expert on Houdini’s personal life, but for him to have stereotypically strained relationships with both his wife and his father seems like it may be a stretch – a gimmick invented just for the purpose of making this miniseries more melodramatic. Similarly questionable is the script’s decision to devote a substantial amount of time to the idea that Houdini may have been a spy working for the U.S. government during his tours of Europe in the early twentieth century. This idea has become more popular in recent years following works like William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s The Secret Life of Houdini published in 2007. In my estimation, such claims are rather far fetched: focusing a significant (or really, any) amount of time on them in this History Channel biopic suggests that there’s not a whole lot in Houdini that a viewer can really take at face value.
Houdini chronicles all the major events of the magician’s life, but there’s no vitality to the piece.
Another major issue I had was the fact that there is extensive use of voiceover in this film – the Houdini character is constantly explaining himself in monologue to the camera. This makes the whole program seem sloppy in terms of its construction – especially when one factors in the relatively high number of montages that exist. Meyer and in turn, director Edel appear to be telling the story in about as lazy and convenient a manner as possible, with little creativity or inspiration. As is the case with many modern films, Edel relies on a string of CGI visuals to distract a viewer into believing he’s watching something that’s better than it actually is. Though the computer graphics allow the viewer to see the inner workings of various locks as Houdini manipulates their gears and pins and also allow for breathtaking views of the skylines of New York City, London, and Berlin circa 1900, during a few moments in this first episode, Houdini borders on being downright laughable due to its soap opera theatrics. The bathroom confrontation between Houdini and his wife (in which he screams about her kissing another man while she urges him to “stop being dramatic” – advice that screenwriter Meyer should have followed himself) and a scene in which Houdini showers his mother with gold coins are ludicrous and very nearly unintentionally hilarious in the manner they’re set-up onscreen. It’s not difficult to see why Edel hasn’t gotten much work in the United States since he fumbled his way through 1993’s Body of Evidence – a film whose sole reason for existence was to feature Madonna naked as much as humanly possible.
Houdini, Jim Collins (played by Evan Jones) and Bess prepare the straight-jacket escape.
One might have hoped that Academy Award winner Adrien Brody would have known better than to star in this thing, but here he is, playing Houdini as a sort of pompous, self-affected and disturbed genius with a bit of an Oedipus complex. The very pretty Kristen Connolly playing Bess comes across as the typical, long suffering wife, a portrayal that doesn’t seem particularly accurate. There’s a constant hostility between these two characters that makes neither of them the least bit likable, in turn making the whole of the first part of Houdini a definitive downer to watch. A variety of mostly unknown actors fill out the remainder of the roles here, with Evan Jones perhaps having the most to do as Jim Collins, who worked behind the scenes to design Houdini’s illusions. Generally speaking, the actors in this film were fine, it was the script that they were given – and the presentation of that script – that wound up being problematic.
The real Houdini preparing for a near-fatal dive off the Queen Street Bridge in Melbourne, Australia. This scene both begins and ends part one of the mini-series.
Though the attention to period detail was generally well-done and the production had some nicely-constructed individual sequences (one of the aspects I liked the most were slickly edited moments in which Houdini’s “life flashes before his eyes”), the first half of Houdini, taken as a whole, was disappointing and clearly focused on style over substance. I’ve often pointed out that it’s most unfortunate that pieces like this have to be rather dubious in terms of their historical accuracy: the information presented in this miniseries would represent the only information many viewers are likely to get about Houdini, hence, this crowd would now view the greatest magician the world has ever known as a womanizer with father issues and a horrible home life. I suppose I really shouldn’t be all that shocked that Houdini would turn out to be a somewhat (or is it mostly?) sensationalized biopic that, with its occasionally frenzied editing scheme, use of “pulse-pounding music,” and fractured, clumsy narrative, seems tailor-made for the ADHD generation (a crowd that would probably enjoy it). Clearly, this miniseries (like most of the “educational” programs on television nowadays) is designed to hook viewers with flash and pizazz while not necessarily being all that historically accurate or educationally sound. Still, even as the edutainment piece is quite obviously is, Houdini seems sketchy at best; sure, it’s a handsome production, but I might be inclined to skip it entirely.