Skip to main content

Review: History's 'Houdini'

Houdini: the ultimate in escapist programming.

This entertaining biopic ably fills the role of post-holiday-weekend blockbuster that History helped establish with 2012’s Hatfields & McCoys. Adrien Brody is sympathetic and likeable as the man who transcended being a “common magician,” as he says here, and became “an escape artist.”

And about six minutes in, you see a superbly buff Brody in chains wearing the briefest of briefs — at that point, he and Kristen Connolly, who plays his lifelong love, Bess Houdini, will hopefully (from History’s perspective) have captured the 18-to-34-year-olds who may never have heard of the man the film describes as America’s first global superstar.

Throughout, the show cleverly weaves in past and future imagery, of Houdini as a child with his beloved mother; of the backstage punch to the stomach that fatally injured him in 1926, at age 52; and of a sensational manacled bridge jump into an icy river. Plot sideshows have him spying for the British government against Germany during World War I and performing magic for the doomed Czar Nicholas and his family. (He disliked Rasputin.)

The problem with doing death-defying escapes is that you have to keep making them more and more dangerous. This causes tension between Harry and Bess, so he quits risking his life — just as talking pictures are coming out, destroying his vaudeville magic act. And when his mother dies, he becomes interested in the possibilities of communicating with the dead. Late in life he crusaded against phony spiritualists — who used smoke and mirrors to create effects to fool séance suckers — and it’s implied that this helped lead to his death.

Many of Houdini’s illusions are explained here (though not the one about the disappearing elephant). Houdini never lost sight that they were just tricks.

There are plenty of neat narrative tricks here to make Houdini worth a watch.