Houdini is not my father’s History Channel. When the cable station premiered in 1995, my old man used to plunk himself in front of it daily, watching in rapt attention as one World War II documentary after another unspooled. Once upon that time it was a refuge for solemn contemplation about where we’ve come from, and where we might be going. But the original mini-series Houdini, a dramatic re-telling of the life of the legendary escape artist, is anything but solemn. It is a pulse-pounder. It’s history by way of Fight Club.
Directed by Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhoff Complex) and written by Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), adapting a biography written by his father, Houdini throws you right into the defiance of death. Harry Houdini, played by Adrien Brody, stands shackled on the precipice of a bridge, about to throw himself into a tiny hole carved into icy water below. “Hell of a job,” he muses to himself as he takes a fateful plunge. “Hell of a job,” we muse to ourselves as he shuffles off his manacles in below-zero temperatures, and struggles – seemingly in vain – to find his escape route through the ice after the current carries him downstream.
There is nothing that isn’t cool about Harry Houdini. He was the first great magical showman, transforming complicated but intimate sleights of hand into mammoth spectacles, daring audiences to watch as he nearly killed himself again and again. Surely he had precedents but history has since declared that Houdini is without equal. His legend lives on. Edel’s mini-series explores his real life but never loses sight of the legend. Every single thing Houdini does in Houdini is “badass,” trumped up with an exceptional Trent Reznor-influenced score, sharp cinematography and editing that ignores every single part of the protagonist’s life that could even arguably be considered boring.
Houdini makes a show of everything, even the tiniest moments, but it’s the bigger tales that grab you. Harry Houdini, a spy for the United States, vanishes mid-escape to sneak across the street and steal classified documents. While he’s supposed to be inside a safe on stage, he’s actually locked inside another safe, with no idea how to get out. If he’s caught, he’ll be executed, and if he doesn’t escape in time and sneak all the way back to the stage before the audience is told he will have died of suffocation, his act will be ruined forever.
Is this story true? I have no idea and I can’t imagine why anyone would care. Houdini takes the Man on the Moon approach to biographical storytelling, daring you to be such a stick in the mud that you can’t appreciate that the legend matters more than anything. But thanks to mostly to Brody’s layered performance, and a scrambled chronology narrative that parcels out character development between every remarkable anecdote, Houdini feels real enough to accept while you’re watching it. It’s a showman’s life, and it’s one hell of a stage production.
As a single film, this all would have been too exhausting to take seriously. But over the course of two feature length installments, Houdini manages to find the subtle threads that connected the events in Houdini’s over the top life. The daddy issues that plagued him, the need to hide his Jewish heritage, his friendly rivalry with his brother (who was also a magician), and the resentment that built up like plaque over his marriage to Bess (Kristen Connelly, of Cabin in the Woods). The first half focuses on the crazy stunts, the “fun” of it all, and the second on Houdini’s response to the death of vaudeville, turning his life into the stunt and challenging psychic mediums across America to prove they aren’t all charlatans.
The new Blu-ray of Houdini is absolutely stunning. Whereas many TV productions, even higher quality programs, fall prey to high-definition when their visual effects are placed under a microscope, Houdini remains utterly handsome. The striking cinematography by Karl Walter Lindenlaub is truly impressive, the sound design rich and complicated, and the overall scope of Houdini’s production ultimately rivals many of its expensive, feature film counterparts.
But best of all is the extended edition, with a significant amount of material to flesh out Houdini and its supporting cast. A moment where Bess is kicked out of home for marrying a Jew foreshadows a later, extremely important moment when she uses anti-Semitism to hurt her husband, a moment that comes out of nowhere otherwise. It’s a rare instance in which more is actually better, as is the rest of mini-series. Its bigness is a crucial part of its success. It’s a thrilling and wonderful mini-series that works as a slice of (maybe apocryphal) history, and as pure escapism.
Houdini is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.