Wednesday, June 22, 2011

That Old Black Magic

Orson Welles and Partner-in-Crime Akim Tamiroff in the
little-known, little appreciated Black Magic (1949)

One of the great mysteries to me is why so many films of note have never made it to DVD.  Case in point the little-known but fascinating film Black Magic, starring Orson Welles and directed by Gregory Ratoff in 1949.  (Movie buffs are probably more familiar with Ratoff the actor – he played producer Max Fabian in All About Eve.)  I first saw this film on television during its annual 3:00 a.m. showing on the New York CBS outlet, and it has effectively cemented itself to my psyche ever since.  New York’s Film Forum (an oasis for serious cineastes) ran it in 2004 and I was enthralled once again.

I think what was so compelling for me (then and now) is that I can think of no other film that so embodies the spirit of literary Romanticism.  Black Magic could well serve as a checklist for the touchstones of this literary tributary.

The film is based on Joseph Balsamo by Alexander Dumas, Sr.  In fact – both Dumas, father and son – appear in a delightful framing sequence.  In short -- Alexander Dumas, Sr. (Berry Kroeger) tells his son Alexander Dumas, Jr. (Raymond Burr!) the story of Joseph Balsamo (Orson Welles), who later nearly enslaved most of Europe to his hypnotic will under the name Cagliostro.

As a boy, Balsamo witnessed the murder of his parents at the hands of a corrupt nobleman.  Becoming a traveling player and medicine man, Balsamo learns that he has charismatic gift of hypnotism.  Looking into his eyes, Balsamo can literally will a subject to health or illness.

Balsamo comes to the attention of Dr. Franz Mesmer (a real-life figure and one of the fathers of modern hypnotism), who helps Balsamo realize his gifts.  Balsamo then disappears from the scene, only to return later as the master healer, Cagliostro.

But simple accumulation of wealth is not Cagliostro’s sole plan – he devises a scheme to substitute a young girl called Lorenza (Nancy Guild) for the French queen Marie Antoinette, and thus become the power behind the throne.  He also manages to eliminate the aristocrat who murdered his family.

Like many great Romantic and Gothic texts (and Black Magic is both), the film is densely over-plotted; filled with schemes and intrigues, replete with royal shenanigans and intricate love triangles.  Black Magic is also a multi-generational revenge plot, much like Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. The action of the story is pitched on a high emotional plain of  fever-pitch passion.  The film’s version of Dumas claims that the character of Cagliostro has possessed, hypnotized, and consumed him, the creator of Edmund Dantes and the Three Musketeers!  This is lush Romantic-era hyperbole and a wonderful evocation of the Romantic imagination. 

Welles makes for an appealing, Byronic anti-hero.  He is conflicted, contradictory and both heroic and villainous.  Draped in black cape and outrageous robes with magical symbols, he’s a crazy house reflection of his earlier radio characterization of The Shadow.  In fact, his eyes – controlling, hypnotic, powerful -- are almost an individual character in themselves.  Welles’ eyes are superimposed over people, over images, over Europe, as slowly, Cagliostro takes control….

The cult of personality is largely an invention of the Romantic era, and Black Magic also rather critically looks at our slavish devotion to charismatics as Cagliostro bamboozles an entire continent with his hypnotic personality.

Black Magic is a fascinating amalgam of swashbuckling adventure, Gothic horror, florid Romanticism and political intrigue.  Scenarist Charles Bennett includes premature burials, gibbets, sadistic aristocrats, gypsies, magic, hypnotism, and revenge.  I am amazed that this film is so little known, even among Welles aficionados, and fervently wish it would become available to movie buffs in DVD or Blu-Ray format.

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