Review - Houdini: The Movie Star (DVD-2008)
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Houdini: The Movie Star (DVD-2008)

Kino International

Reviewed by Dennis Kwiatkowski


The world seems to be endlessly fascinated by Harry Houdini.  There have been three feature films chronicling his life, including the famous film starring Tony Curtis.  Rather recently, his magical apparatus and memorabilia were auctioned off fetching record prices.  The event was of such interest, it was filmed as a TV special.


A recently published biography, meticulously researched, unearthed a good deal of new information and made the contention that Houdini worked for the Secret Service as a spy and that his untimely death from a ruptured appendix at age 52 in 1926 may have been the result of murder.


And now, freshly released by Kino International comes a spectacular 3-DVD set entitled Houdini: The Movie Star.  While so much information is known about Houdini, his phenomenal escapes and illustrious magic career, and while so much misinformation is also out there, such as the ridiculous but dramatic idea that he died while trying to escape from his celebrated Water Torture Cell, there is also much information about Houdini about which the public knows virtually nothing.  One example is that he experimented with flying airplanes when aviation was in its infancy.  He was the first man to make a solo recorded flight in Australia.  Another example is that he starred in silent movies—first in a movie serial called The Master Mystery, and then in four additional feature films. 


Even people who have read about his films have probably never seen them.  That situation has now been remedied by the Kino company with a DVD set that includes all of the known existing footage of his films.  There is The Mastery Mystery in which Houdini plays Quentin Locke, a government agent who infiltrates a corrupt patents company only to face its dreaded protector—a robot known as the Automaton.  This may also be the first time a robot was actually featured in the plot of a film. 


Then there is Terror Island, a slick production in which Houdini’s character pilots a submarine in search of sunken treasure and battles warlike island natives. Another is one of Houndini’s first films, The Grim Game, which no longer exists.  But its spectacular aerial sequence, where the two planes being filmed actually collide in mid-air and plummet to earth, has survived and is included in the set.  The film, The Man from Beyond stars Houdini as a man in the Arctic frozen in ice for 100 years in suspended animation.  When he is thawed out, he revives and searches for his lost love, who, the film implies, has been reincarnated.  The inclusion of the unusual theme of reincarnation as a doctrine that was part of the teachings of the world’s major religions, lends credence to author H. Spencer Lewis’ claim that Houdini was affiliated in Europe with the Rosicrucians.  Houdini’s final film, Haldane of the Secret Service, in which Houdini stars as an undercover agent tracking down a counterfeiting ring, was not only written by Houdini, but directed by him as well. 


If seven hours worth of Houdini films is not enough, the viewer will find endless delight in the extras which include the New York censorship board’s somewhat ludicrous suggestions for deleting scenes (virtually any in which Houdini is bound or which depict violence) lest they incite citizens to commit crimes.  Actual archival newsreel footage of Houdini’s straightjacket escapes, hanging upside down suspended from newspaper buildings, or jumping manacled from a bridge into a river and releasing himself underwater are also included.  Appearing as well is Houdini’s brother, Hardeen, performing one of his brother’s famous illusions.  And there is a rare 1914 recording of Houdini’s voice. There are detailed notes on the various films and also a 1910 ten- minute short whose story concerns the police trying to apprehend a suspect who keeps slipping out of their grip—a film obviously inspired by Houdini.  This rare French film- short is a marvelous piece in itself showing sophistication in both its special effects and direction.   


Music for all the films and footage is provided by composers Ben Model, Stuart Oderman, Clark Wilson and Jon C. Mirsalis performing on piano, organ or synthesizer and the scores represent the best of their kind—superb work in the best tradition of silent film scores.. 


Houdini’s film acting ability has been the subject of controversy—pro and con.  You can judge for yourself.  Bur these films spread Houdini’s already considerable fame worldwide, and they showcase his charisma and physical ability and include many harrowing, riveting and dangerous action sequences as well as many of Houdini’s famous escapes.  For its historical value alone, Kino’s 3-DVD set Houdini: The Movie Star is priceless and is a must-have for any fan of the great Houdini.


2008 Dennis Kwiatkowski/Celluloid Dreams



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