Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Magician (1973)

          In between his longer-running series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and The Incredible Hulk, beloved TV star Bill Bixby spent one season playing an illusionist who dabbles as a philanthropic detective, using his unique skills to help innocent people out of tricky situations. Although the series didn’t last very long, it engendered a loyal fan base because of its comic-book style, and, indeed, the series’ feature-length pilot plays out like a superhero story. While performing his magic show one night in a big-city hotel ballroom, Anthony Dorian (Bixby) notices a distraught woman in the audience. Then, when a mystery man staggers to her table and dies, Tony offers assistance. It turns out the woman, Nora Cougan (Kim Hunter), is upset because she can’t confirm whether her daughter died in a recent plane accident. Jazzed by the chance to solve a mystery, Tony stashes Nora at the home of his super-rich friend Max Pomeroy (Keene Curtis), and then embarks on a search for clues. Although penned by no less a figure than Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of Psycho (1960), the pilot’s narrative gets murky pretty quickly, so after a while it’s hard to remember exactly what Tony’s looking for and/or why violent people seem so determined to stand in his way. (There’s a bomb, a conspiracy, a kidnapped girl, and so forth.)
          This being a TV pilot, the storyline is less important than establishing a vibe. Bixby portrays the lead character as a suave type who’s always ready with a slick magic trick or a smooth line, so his performance is appealing; furthermore, Bixby mimics sleight of hand with polished flair since he was a lifelong amateur illusionist. However, even though the movie’s requisite gimmicks are fun (Tony lives aboard a customized jet and drives a bitchin’ white Porsche), the supporting characters are woefully underdeveloped. Still, director Marvin Chomsky, who helmed numerous episodes of the comic-book-styled ’60s adventure show The Wild Wild West, keeps things brisk, and the cast features reliable players including Elizabeth Ashley and Barry Sullivan. Completing the package, the pilot movie introduces the series’ jazzy credits sequence, which blends animated transitions with live-action clips. This is slight stuff, but it’s easy to see why NBC thought fans would tune in for more week after week. (FYI, the lead character’s surname was changed from “Dorian” to “Blake” once the series got going.)

The Magician: FUNKY

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