Houdini Blu-ray Review
Harry Houdini has long been memorialized as one of the greatest magicians of all time. Well, more like “Illusionist.” Houdini had a knack of getting himself into tight places, usually chained or handcuffed, and remarkably setting himself free. Whether he was hanging upside down 300 feet above the pavement while bound in a straitjacket or completely submerged (and wrapped in chains) in a milk bottle (the large kind, not the one you get at the supermarket, though that would be an amazing trick), Houdini managed to cheat death at every turn. Except for that punch in the stomach.
A well made, and well researched, biography, HOUDINI is a much better film than its 1953 predecessor, which starred Tony Curtis or the 1998 television film with Johnathan Schaech, both of which share the name of its subject. The film begins with Houdini (Brody in a very good performance) chained (naturally) and standing on a bridge high above a frozen river where a hole has been cut. Jumping off he finds himself submerged under the ice, where, as many films of this type do, he begins to reminisce with himself about his life. Born Erich Weiss in Budapest, he and his family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin (a very nice town which boasts Harry Houdini Elementary School). Impressed by a traveling magician, young Erich studies the life and work of a magician named Robert Houdin (whose name he will later adopt and adapt) and is soon making money with his skills. Noticing that grandiose and more extravagant stunts are becoming popular, he soon devises tricks which appear to have him at a disadvantage, only to turn the tables on his audience. The bigger the trick, the more popular Houdini becomes. A physical fitness buff, Houdini also likes to bet others that they can hit him as hard as they’d like in the stomach with no effect. In time he is world famous, with his name as well known in Europe as it is in America. This is the story everyone knows and the film doesn’t miss a beat in presenting it.
What is less known is that Houdini, even though there was a lot of “trickery” involved in his act, did not like “mediums” who proposed to speak with the dead. He had tried several times to contact his beloved (and dead) mom and when he realized what a parlor show the situation lent itself to, he put up $25,000 of his own money, offering to give it to anyone that could prove they communicated with the “other side.” The film spends a lot of time on this part of Houdini’s life, including a little known episode featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, a supposed medium who claims to have spoken with Mother Houdini. The final act of the film follow Houdini on his campaign. Brody is strong here, giving the great Houdini an air of humanity. As his wife, Bess, Connolly is equally well cast.
Udel’s direction is strong, though he does rely too much, in my opinion, on the “inside the body” shots that some procedural television programs use. The inside of Houdini’s stomach is shown as he repeatedly takes punch after bunch in the bread basket, unfortunately making it look like Harry Houdini is smuggling a brisket in his gut!
Video: Presented in its original 1:78.1 aspect ratio, the picture is bright but sometimes not very sharp. The director appears to love close-ups and the facial features, while visible, are not sharply defined.
Audio: Presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, the sound is clear and sharp. The musical score does not overtake the more dramatic dialogue-strong scenes.
The package comes with two versions of the film, both presented in two parts. The extended version is about 22 minutes longer but nothing is really missed in the original presentation.
Houdini the Greatest (3:55): A quick look behind the scenes of the film as well as some old footage of the real Houdini.
The Great Escapes (4:02): Star Adrien Brody talks about Houdini and some of his tricks.
The Real Houdini (3:10): Like the first extra. More film of the great man but not a lot of information. I would have loved to have seen some footage from the films Houdini starred in (and occasionally directed) in the early 1920s.
Cheating Death (3:34): Brody again, this time learning how to master some of Houdini’s illusions.