Beyond Trickery: Houdini at Niagara Falls

While in New York City, I took in a few films I would have otherwise missed (the intoxicating My Winnipeg, featuring 1940s B-movie actress Ann Savage) or given a miss (the eerie Happening, which went nowhere, but worked well as a prolonged exercise in foreshadowing). Of these offerings, The Incredible Hulk was certainly the least, despite the compelling opening sequences shot on location in Brazil. After that, this most recent reworking of the Marvel strip exhausted itself, like most of today’s ostensible blockbusters, in CGI trickery that, after all these years, still fails to convince. Lou Ferrigno’s cameo sure made me long for the days in which monsters were made of flesh and bone and stuntmen were at hand to bruise and break theirs for our amusement—the kind of hands-on work recalled for us in the unlikely medium of radio as a series of dramatic reenactments titled Daredevils of Hollywood. I appreciate a solid stunt or expertly executed legerdemain, which is why I admire the work of the digits-deficient Harold Lloyd and the spectacles of the silent era in general.

During our time at Niagara Falls, we wondered whether Harry Houdini had ever gone over them in a barrel. He did not; but that is just the kind of stunt his public would have expected of the great escape artist, whose specter looms large in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a Pulitzer Prize-winning page-turner I read earlier this year:

Like Harry Houdini, Joe [Kavalier] had failed to get out of his self-created trap; but now the love of a boy had sprung him, and drawn him at last, blinking, before the footlights.

So, while browsing at one of New York City’s few remaining video stores, I snatched up a box set of Houdini pictures and, earlier this week, screened The Man from Beyond (1922).

A convoluted and somewhat ramshackle thriller involving cryonics, the supernatural, and plenty of melodramatic villainy, Beyond features a climax not unlike the one in the previously discussed in Niagara. The only trickery was achieved in editing, which, to be sure, makes film a dubious vehicle for the displaying of Houdini’s feats. Despite this, and despite all the cardboard hooey of such potboilers, Beyond achieves a physicality—and verisimilitude—missing from the Kung Fu Pandamic of today’s CGIdeated action-adventures.

2 Replies to “Beyond Trickery: Houdini at Niagara Falls”

  1. I think he\’d turn over (in) his grave, Doug, if he hasn\’t escaped it already. A hands-on artist like Houdini wouldn\’t be caught half-alive in what goes for state-of-the-art special effects movies today.

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