In 1978, director Richard Attenborough and writer William Goldman teamed up to parlay the success they had with their war film A Bridge Too Far into a psychological thriller. The movie they ended up making was Magic, featuring a crazy looking ventriloquist dummy that is so terrifying, it still haunts the nightmares of anyone who was a child when they saw the film for the first time.
Anthony Hopkins plays Corky Withers, a struggling magician. Struggling, that is, until he adds a ventriloquist dummy named Fats to his act. With Fats, Corky’s agent Ben Greene (played by Burgess Meredith, the king of character actors) is able to get Corky his own T.V. show. Corky, somewhat afraid of finding success, runs away to the lakeside hotel-cabin run by his old friend and unrequited love interest Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret). It’s here that Ben tracks Corky down and finds out that the line between Corky and Fats is blurry. Ben suspects what the audience has already figured out, that Corky has started believing that Fats is real. Not only does Corky believe Fats is real, but he obeys when Fats tells him to do things he normally wouldn’t dream of doing. Corky’s split personality combined with the cabin’s secluded location is a recipe for murder.
The premise of Magic had been done by both “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (“And So Died Riabouchinska”) and “The Twilight Zone” (“The Dummy”), so Goldman’s story isn’t really anything new. What sets Magic apart from other schizophrenic ventriloquist offerings is its cast. The pre-Hannibal Lecter Hopkins has a field day, playing both the role of Corky and providing the voice of Fats. Hopkins’ screaming matches with himself paint a picture of a desperate man fighting the onset of madness, a battle that the audience knows is already lost. Meredith is great (as always) as Ben Greene, the agent who’s worried about Corky’s sanity. Together, the pair possesses an onscreen chemistry that can only be achieved by gifted, veteran actors. For example, in one scene, Ben challenges Corky to not let Fats talk for five minutes. The suspense is unbearable, and it’s provided completely by the actors’ performances – no writer could write what Hopkins and Meredith deliver on the screen.
The music in Magic is also a key element to the film. The score was done by Jerry Goldsmith, who is probably one of the most prolific film composers to ever work in the field. Not only does Goldsmith provide the foundation for the suspense in the film, but he also gives Fats a little harmonica theme that signals when he’s coming alive. Fats’ theme reminds the viewer of his presence in the same way that John Williams’ iconic two-note cello motif lets the audience know that the shark is near in Jaws. The audience knows something is going to happen, they just don’t know what or when. It’s the musical equivalent of Hitchcock’s “show them the bomb” philosophy.
Magic is not a perfect film. It takes a while to get to any real bloodshed while the viewer watches Corky struggle with his feelings for Peggy, his fear of success and his internal dialogues with Fats. Much of this character development seems superfluous, as the fact that Corky is unstable is made clear in just a few key scenes of him alone with the dummy. Magic could benefit from more action and less dialogue. Nevertheless, it is still a frightening film, and Fats should go down in history as one of the great movie villains of all time.