In “The Remains of the Day”, Peter Vaughan appeared as the butler father of Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), struggling with age, not at all up to the standards he himself used to live up to as a butler. His jutting chin is a distinctive characteristic and it would simply be just a part of the character, if not for Anthony Hopkins, who shows with the utmost dedication that in some sense, save for the opinionated manner of the elder Stevens, father and son are one. As we hear Stevens narrate a letter to Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall, Hopkins, as a much older Stevens, walks slowly through the great mansion, opening tall shutters to let in the morning light. And in one moment, as he tends to a left-side shutter, there’s the jutting chin and the heavyset manner, just like Vaughan when he first appears. For Hopkins, it’s never been about imitation, as his many prestigious film roles show. As Hannibal Lecter, as Stevens, as Jack Lewis, as William Bligh, and as the failed magician Corky in “Magic”, he has always been these great and sometimes terrible men, with skill that commands respect every time we see him.
Because of Hopkins, because of Ann-Margret (who hardly looks like that Ann-Margret, adeptly proving herself as an occasional dramatic actress), and because of Burgess Meredith as well as Fats the dummy, “Magic” is one of the top-notch films of the 1970s. And if you haven’t heard of it by now, you should never forget the name at this point. It isn’t one of those psychological thrillers out to tie knots in your stomach right off. Like any good magic trick, the excitement comes with the waiting. Corky is good with magic, but not with crowds. No charisma, none that magicians like The Amazing Johnathan use to crazed and comical advantage any night of the week. The esteemed screenwriter, William Goldman also knows what makes magic work. If you don’t see everything the magician does, as you shouldn’t, it’s magic. Therefore, after the failed act that Corky recounts to his ailing mentor, he is next seen with a dummy named Fats, his alternate persona which is entertaining enough to get him a TV deal, which his agent (Burgess Meredith) is sure will bring him much fame. But Corky flees to quieter pastures and waters after he learns of a required physical examination by the network to be sure that they’re not giving their money to anyone in ill health or with any problems that would prevent them from spending their money wisely. What Corky has to hide is where the next magic act comes from.
Director Richard Attenborough is also aware of how magic works and slowly takes everything in with his camera. Anthony Hopkins’ eyes are his most important feature as he works with Fats and becomes overly tense with Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), whom he had a crush on in high school and apparently still does. This is one of the rare times when Ann-Margret doesn’t don her famed persona, and in that first moment, I wondered what happened to that Ann-Margaret. Is that really her? Indeed it is and Attenborough has the right eye toward all his actors. For the trick to work, all the actors need to have faces that fit well where they live. Nothing extraneous to suggest anything wrong. Ann-Margaret’s makeup makes her look as if she has lived lakeside long enough to flatten a person’s features. Any way she might have looked in high school has worn down after all this time.
Again, with Hopkins’ eyes, there are moments allowed for close-ups and in watching Hopkins closely enough, he makes obvious the staggering future ahead of him circa 1978. During the unsettling card trick, his eyes show Corky’s many facets. It is up to us to figure out what is going on and as we do, darkness gradually comes and it is those moments that bring “Magic” to a level barely felt in today’s thrillers. Uneasiness can’t immediately be pushed on to an audience. It has to develop, to come from actors, a screenplay, and direction tapped into all the possibilities. As with any thriller, “Magic” has its gratuitous moments, such as a struggle in the lake that is too easy, considering how hard wood is, especially when a dummy’s been formed from it, but in Goldman’s own way, it’s a moment of diversion before the next part of the trick can begin. Nothing up one sleeve, but everything up the other. Gotta switch the sleeves, shuffle the cards, all while assuring viewers that patience will be duly rewarded. And it is, many times over and with Hopkins even acting as the ventriloquist when necessary, learned long before the film was shot, according to a satisfying DVD with all that can be explained.
Ventriloquist Dennis Alwood and cinematographer Victor J. Kemper are the veritable stars, as they talk separately about the ventriloquism and lighting, which is ultimately one of the most important parts of “Magic.” Alwood built Fats and served as the technical advisor, and since the dummy is at times more crucial than Corky, he’s better for memories on the film than Attenborough might have been had he participated here. One version of how “Magic” might have been cast is particularly fascinating. Kemper points out certain bits of visual information that may be missed in that first viewing, and his on-the-set stories match Alwood’s for a well-rounded look at the film, along with Hopkins’ radio interview, set against on-set footage.
If you’re savvy enough like me while watching “Magic”, the twist is let out fairly early, but that shouldn’t detract at all from the pure pleasure of watching all the darkening moments. In fact, it adds so much more to it in considering just how this certain condition exists and how it can become so interlocked within a human brain. It’s rare, according to Alwood’s interview, but through Hopkins, it’s a disquieting, impactful trip.