An auction of Houdini collectibles provides the excuse for yet another documentary about the legendary magician that nevertheless proves extremely interesting — an unsentimental portrait capturing both his enduring influence and cultural importance in turn-of-the-century entertainment. Beyond a better understanding of the man, the various aficionados who weigh in include the usually mum half of Penn & Teller, who is shot in silhouette so as not to see him speak. It’s just one of the nifty wrinkles in this unusually engaging spec.
Halloween has always been a noteworthy time for fans of Harry Houdini, who died that night, after spending the latter part of his career debunking psychics who claimed they could contact the dead. (A fascinating tidbit involves Houdini’s friendship with Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed a medium had communicated with his dead son.)
For anyone whose Houdini knowledge rests on the heavily Hollywoodized movie starring Tony Curtis, this is a particularly well-fleshed-out endeavor, showcasing a generous array of archival footage featuring the magician at work — hanging upside down, say, as he wriggles out of a straitjacket.
Unlike many of today’s illusionists (some of whom, including host Lance Burton and David Copperfield, participate), Houdini’s act hinged largely on his prodigious physical skills. This included the ability to hold his breath for several minutes, allowing him to execute his escapes from a water-filled milk can and a chamber he called the “Chinese Water Torture” trick.
Houdini also possessed a “masterful understanding of the interior of locks,” a biographer notes, as well as a lock-pick collection that doubtless contributed to his title “King of Handcuffs,” though to this day no one knows precisely how he employed them. Burton adds a nice touch by extricating himself from a straitjacket near the end.
Equally fascinating is how Houdini chafed at the numerous imitators who sprang up (including his brother, who operated under the name “Hardeen”), prompting him to invent ever-more-dangerous stunts that would be more difficult for others to duplicate.
Although a Halloween-timed confection, docu also explores the significance Houdini held for early 20th century immigrants (a point alluded to in the book and musical “Ragtime”), offering symbolic escape from their drudgery as they toiled in backbreaking jobs. Blessed with an instinctive genius for marketing, his ascent from poverty to vaudeville’s highest-paid performer burnished his credentials as a populist hero.
In that sense, “Houdini” represents the kind of History Channel fare that if sold properly could help bridge the gap to younger audiences — a program that entertains without pandering or sacrificing its historical legitimacy.
And if that pitch doesn’t work, then just try, “Teller speaks!”