02 August 2014

The Great Houdini (1976)
95 min.
Directed by Melville Shavelson.
With Paul Michael Glaser, Sally Struthers, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Vance, Adrienne Barbeau, Bill Bixby, Jack Carter, Peter Cushing, Maureen O'Sullivan, Clive Revill, Barbara Rhoades.
Interesting Made-for-Television biopic (with a supernatural bent) about the life and times of Harry Houdini.

The story concentrates on several aspects: Houdini's rise to fame and his untimely demise, his preoccupation with debunking the occult and the afterlife (and his eventual acceptance of it), and the friction between his staunchly Jewish mother and his Christian wife (the latter a plot device for dramatic tension not rooted in actual fact).

Paul Michael Glaser is charismatic as Houdini, the world's greatest magician and escape artist, while Sally Struthers adds another impressive dramatic role to her credits - as the faithful and dutiful wife who barely tolerates her mother-in-law…not to mention her husband's trysts with another woman.

Taking liberties with the historical record, director Melville Shavelson moves things along in an even-keeled, sometimes whimsical manner.

But he also lays it on thick at times, including a surreal scene with Barbara Rhoades as a sexy medium at a séance designed to make contact with Houdini's dead mother - but which erupts into screaming hysteria, replete with booming, possessed voice. She seems to be a fraud, but the sequence is rushed and confusing.

The all-star cast includes Ruth Gordon, hamming it up a bit as Mom, and Peter Cushing in a small role as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Adrienne Barbeau appears in her first TV role outside of Maude, while the wonderful Vivian Vance is on hand to narrate and offer wry observations as a nurse.

While it doesn't answer all the questions and mysteries surrounding its enigmatic subject, The Great Houdini is a very well made film which never fails to entertain, and surpasses the 1953 theatrical feature Houdini starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.

Good costumes and an authentic period flavor are also a big plus.

Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926 - and appropriately, this ABC-TV movie aired on October 8, 1976, just in time for Halloween.

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