Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Magician

Just watched Rex Ingram's 1926 film The Magician... I should have prefaced this screening with a reading of W. Somerset Maugham's 1908 novel but time wouldn't allow. The chief interest in the novel and film nowadays is the character of Oliver Haddo the sinister magician, based on Aleister Crowley, an acquaintance of Maugham when they both lived in Paris. Crowley hated* the novel of course and I presume Ingram's film, but I found it a delight from start to finish, well directed and mounted (including excellent location shooting in Paris and the south of France) and less theatrical than one might expect from a melodrama of this era. The best sequence in the film is when Paul Wegener's magus (pictured below) whisks the heroine off to a tinted garden of unearthly delights (with shades of Häxan) and there's a rousing climax in the Magician's castle as he attempts to harness life from his diabolical laboratory - watching the film one gets the sense that The Magician bridges the gap between the German Expressionism and James Whale's Frankenstein. Interestingly, the film comes with a short bit of comic business by none other than Michael Powell, playing a man who misplaces his hat. Powell actually provides some good information about the film in his autobiography A Life In Movies, and offers a fascinating slant on the film when he opines: "If Crowley himself had played the part it might have been more entertaining".

* Postscript: I presumed wrongly when I claimed Crowley hated the novel. According to Martin Booth's excellent biography A Magick Life, Crowley was pleased that the book played up the sinister aspects of his personality and Crowley, ever the self-promoter bemoaned the fact that Maugham wasn't at the time a widely read author such that Crowley's infamous reputation would be better known.

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