Why do I always think of Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes together? I guess they were in The League of Gentlemen together. And Attenborough acted in Seance on a Wet Afternoon (a favorite of mine). But maybe Magic is the clincher. Forbes always seemed to me more interested in thrillers and eerie supernatural/sci-fi (Seance, The Stepford Wives, Deadfall, etc), and Magic is Attenborough’s entry into that genre.
The movie boasts a great lead performance from Anthony Hopkins, playing double duty as the ventriloquist Corky Withers and his puppet, Fats.Attenborough is smart to frequently capture them in 2-shot:
Ann-Margaret is great opposite him as Peggy, the woman on whom he’s had a crush since they were children.
Alongside the performances, Magic really works thanks to some fluid Attenborough direction. He shoots pretty tight and there are a few well-orchestrated moments of misdirection. There’s also some funny stuff to theorize about in here (for instance: why does Fats blink one time when Corky is clearly not controlling him?).
Here’s a look at some of Attenborough’s direction in this shot reverse shot. Corky tries to perform an impossible trick. Peggy assists him. The scene starts in fairly basic coverage. We’re over Peggy’s shoulder with the 3 of clubs in the foreground:
This is the first half of the scene. I like some of the small stuff. At first, the cinematographic language favors Peggy. She’s the one with the clean singles. Look at the first two shots of Corky. There’s a slight change in the second shot on him. It’s a wider lens. He looks pushed more in the corner…less in control.
But Attenborough changes that with the last shot in the above sequence. Corky gets a tight, clean close-up, comparable to Peggy’s. Here’s more of the scene:
An insert on the important card, back to Peggy’s CU, and then shot-reverse ECUs. Great performances in those eyes. Without any context you could get a feel for the scene and relationships just from them.
Attenborough doesn’t cut out to the final shot above – the wide 2-shot – until the tension has really already built. It’s not used as a traditional master. It’s pretty jarring to go right from those complementary ECUs to something wide. We’re thrown out of the moment, but not in a bad way. Rather, Corky’s eyeline changes momentarily (he looks down) and so we’re spared staying under his scrutiny – we get a cut to the more objective view.
I love the production design in here. The “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkeys; the subtle guns (to the right of the main clock); the multiple timepieces that are visible – they all combine for a good sort of slow menace.