I had actually never heard of The Magician prior to seeing a .gif of it on Rhett Hammersmith’s Tumblr. The .gif—a sculpture of a devilish faun collapsing onto actress Alice Terry—was enough to get me to track down the film. Long considered lost, The Magician didn’t get any kind of home video release until it was put out on DVD by TCM in 2011, which is the version I watched.
It’s a shame that The Magician isn’t better known. While it may never quite reach the gothic heights of such silent horror classics as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Faust, Haxan, and so on, The Magician is, at worst, one rung beneath those, and at its best can give them a run for their money.
Directed by Rex Ingram, who was once called “the world’s greatest director,” The Magician was shot on location Paris and Monte Carlo, and in Ingram’s studios in Nice, France, giving it an unshakably European feel and a sense of scope and modernity that is denied to many of its stagebound contemporaries and even the talkie horror films that would follow it.
Ingram adapted The Magician from the 1908 novel of the same name by M. Somerset Maugham, who was, in his turn, purported to have based the titular magician on Aleister Crowley. In fact, Crowley actually wrote a critique of The Magician the year that the novel was released, in which he accused Maugham of plagiarism. Perhaps ironically, the critique appeared in Vanity Fair under the pen name “Oliver Haddo,” the name of the magician from Maugham’s novel and Ingram’s film.
Both film and novel tell the story of Haddo (played by Paul Wegener, of The Golem and others), a “hypnotist and magician” who is attempting to use an alchemical formula to create new life. In order to complete his experiment, however, he needs the “heart’s blood of a maiden.” Enter sculptor Margaret Dauncey, played by Alice Terry, Ingram’s wife and frequent collaborator. We are introduced to Margaret before any of the other characters, in the scene that produced the .gif which drew me to the film in the first place.
The massive satyr sculpture that crushes Margaret is the first of many indelible images in the film. Others include an almost Boschian scene of Dionysian revelry which also would have been right at home in Haxan, complete with a “dancing faun” who ravishes a girl in front of a decidedly yonic archway, reminding us all that there wasn’t a Hays Code yet in 1926.
When Aleister Crowley was accusing Maugham of plagiarism, he listed a variety of works, including The Island of Doctor Moreau. Conspicuously absent from the list is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, yet the shadow of that novel falls heavy over the cinematic version of The Magician. While the definitive film version of Frankenstein was still several years away, many of the elements of it are already present here, including a climax in an “ancient sorcerer’s tower” on a dark and stormy night, not to mention the eponymous magician’s diminutive assistant.
Haddo’s laboratory may lack the modern amenities and galvanic equipment of James Whale’s Frankenstein, but the bones of the monster are already in place. Most Frankenstein films don’t end with quite such a brawl as this one does—making good use of Paul Wegener’s somewhat hulking physique—though they do often feature the climactic inferno that we see here.