After the success of Marathon Man (1976), the whiz-bang thriller that screenwriter William Goldman adapted from his own novel, it was only a matter of time before Goldman was tapped to bring another of his escapist books to the screen. Hence Magic, which employs the disquieting premise of a ventriloquist gone mad. Benefiting from an amazing performance by star Anthony Hopkins, Magic commands attention from start to finish even though some of the plot twists are highly dubious. Lest we forget, few screenwriters are better at generating pure entertainment than Goldman, so the fun factor mostly trumps logic hiccups. Furthermore, director Richard Attenborough—with whom Goldman previously worked on the World War II epic A Bridge Too Far (1977)—wisely lets the material take the lead, rather than submerging it beneath stylistic flourishes. Magic might strike some modern viewers as quaint, since what passed for shock value in a 1978 popcorn movie now seems restrained, and the love story at the center of the picture never quite works. Nonetheless, there’s a great deal here to enjoy.
Hopkins plays Corky Withers, a gifted magician who lacks stage presence until he adds a gimmick to his act—Fats, a foul-mouthed dummy that functions as Corky’s onstage comedy partner. Fats’ notoriety earns Corky representation from William Morris agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith), who arranges for Corky to shoot a TV pilot. When the network insists on a medical exam, however, Corky balks, and Ben rightly worries that Corky is concealing latent mental illness. Corky leaves New York for his boyhood hometown in the Catskills, where he reconnects with Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), the girl he was too shy to ask out during high school. Now trapped in a loveless marriage to the brutish Duke (Ed Lauter), Peggy reveals she always liked Corky, so they begin an illicit romance. Goldman then builds suspense around the question of whether Fats—who has become a focal point for the demons in Corky’s soul—will intrude on Corky’s happiness. Cue scenes of mayhem and murder.
While the picture’s character-driven approach is commendable, Goldman and Attenborough fail to calibrate supporting characters correctly. The Corky character works, and so does Ben Greene, but Peggy’s identity wobbles from scene to scene based on what’s convenient for the story, and Duke feels like a one-note contrivance. Plus, nearly half the movie elapses before the really creepy stuff starts. That said, Magic contains several terrific suspense scenes, most of which are driven by Hopkins’ meticulous depiction of Corky’s doomed attempts to keep his rage in check—watching the actor teeter on the brink of homicidal fury is completely absorbing. The movie also has flashes of Goldman’s signature wiseass humor, and Attenborough prudently borrows tricks from the Hitchcock playbook. It should also be mentioned, of course, that the scare-factor potential of a dead-eyed doll with homicidal intentions is fully exploited—the crude and vicious Fats, whose abrasive voice is provided by Hopkins, emerges as a memorable screen villain.