Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t around to give writer W. Somerset Maugham his father’s famous advice about “stealing” from the best to create your own art, but mystic Aleister Crowley accused the British author of doing just that after he read Maugham’s 1908 novel, The Magician. Maybe it was just sour grapes—seeing as how Maugham’s fantasy-terror tale was said to be inspired in part by Crowley’s life—but in Maugham’s story of a mad medical student who dabbles in the occult secrets of creating life (not to mention unnecessary surgery), Crowley saw elements he felt were directly lifted variously from Rosenroth’s Kabbalah Unveiled, as well as a book about 16th-century physician/alchemist Paracelsus and H.G. Wells’ man-beast classic The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Sounds like that could be a great movie? Not only has The Magician, the obscure 1926 silent thriller made from Maugham’s book, produced and directed by Rex Ingram, available on DVD (as part of the Warner Archive Collection)—it is a must-see for chiller fans most acquainted with star Paul Wegener‘s more famous turn as The Golem.
Here, Wegener plays Oliver Haddo (the magician of the title), a Parisian medical student obsessed with conducting magical experiments involving the creation of life. Haddo finds a beautiful (if initially unwilling) subject in the form of sculptor Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry, Ingram’s wife), who is horribly injured while working on a humongous faun sculpture—a decidedly creepy thing that reminds one ever so clearly of Gary Oldman’s chalk-white, beehive-hairdo appearance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula—that cracks apart and falls on top of her, crushing her to the ground.
Her life is spared when her uncle, Dr. Porhoet (Firmin Gémier), recruits handsome physician Arthur Burdon (Iván Petrovich) for the emergency operation. The operating theater is where Haddo first observes Margaret; after overhearing colleagues nearby commending Burdon and singing the praises of modern medicine, Haddo sneers and declares that true genius resides in the mastery of magic and the creation of life itself. There and then, he decides to pursue a relationship with Margaret in order to facilitate his otherworldly ambitions.
Haddo steals the secret formula for creating life by finding it inside a book of magic residing in the “Library of the Arsenal” (how convenient!) and proceeds to ingratiate himself into Margaret’s life. In a particularly memorable sequence that revives memories of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the Bela Lugosi chiller Murders in the Rue Morgue, Haddo meets up with Margaret, Burdon (who has quickly fallen in love with his patient), and Porhoet at the local fair, proving his supernatural prowess by surviving the bite of a poisonous snake. Margaret is appropriately creeped out by Haddo’s attentions, but, as we know from obsessed-genius-shockers like Mad Love and The Raven, once the lunatic Beast has set his eyes on his ravishing Beauty, he’s not so easily discouraged.
Before long, Haddo is invading the privacy of her home, hypnotizing her with visions of a Hell resembling the churning chaos found in Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, in a color-tinted sequence that also sees Wegener looking a bit like Emil Jannings’ Mephisto character from Faust, complete with hair slicked oh-so-oddly-and-neatly into twin “horns.”
Haddo’s demented plan can only work if he combines the “ingredients” of life with the heart blood of “a maiden of fair skin” and golden hair, and Margaret’s plan to marry Burdon is something he cannot permit. Haddo manages to spirit the girl away and marry her (“in name only,” we’re later assured), an outrage that leads Burdon and Porhoet on a chase to Monte Carlo, where the newlywed couple is engaged in scamming money from the casino with the help of Margaret’s new psychic powers (?!).
The war between good and evil finds its climax inside Haddo’s towering castle (where he is not-so-ably assisted by a dwarf servant in the Verne Troyer mold) in the village of Latourette, as her uncle and her lover race to break inside—during a dark and stormy night, of course—and stop Haddo from slicing open her chest and removing her still-beating heart.
The Magician deserves a dramatic rediscovery by horror and silent film fans. It has some imperfections, to be sure—there are many awkward narrative transitions, but anyone who adores the Universal classics of the ‘30s won’t be put off in the least as the film races through its brisk 79-minute running time—but there are many, many pleasures to be found here by genre fans. First and foremost is the performance of Wegener, which is only a thick slice of ham in as much as he successfully rises to the requirements of the outsized role. He’s a very colorful human monster, and comes across like a wild combination of Lionel Atwill, Jack Palance, and Klaus Maria Brandauer.
Ingram’s direction is lively and the cinematography by John F. Seitz (who has an enormous filmography, from Curly Top to Madame X, Another Thin Man, The Moon and Sixpence, Invaders from Mars, and many, many others) is thick with atmosphere. In addition to the spectacular sets—James Whale is said to have studied the film’s castle scenes before shooting Frankenstein, and it shows—there are many gorgeously composed, carefully framed location scenes in Paris and Monte Carlo.
There’s some very eccentric comic relief in the film—so goofy it feels completely at home with the rest of the bizarre proceedings. Something must also be said about the brilliant casting and usage of the bit parts and extras. Your eyes can wander over the screen and see one interesting face after another, and it’s unusual to see how well actors given the tiniest of roles here are afforded their moment in the spotlight.
Lastly, a crucial addition to this release is the new musical score by Robert Israel. Fans will instantly recognize the ever-popular “Swan Lake” passage from Dracula and The Mummy, as well as very specific classical cues from the Karloff-Lugosi The Black Cat, which are pleasures unto themselves, but Israel too makes some other fresh and bold choices with the orchestration and times many of the cues very effectively to specific action.
Monster kids, don’t miss The Magician. I think you’ll be distinctly satisfied and find a new classic to place alongside your better-known favorites.