The Prestige

The Prestige is a theatrical mainstream feature film that premiered in 2006. I knew about it long before it came to local theatres and I could not wait as it dealt not only with the theme of magic but magic in the Victorian period.   

In real life, the Victorian age saw such greats as Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, arguably thefather of modern magic, Alexander Herrmann, Nevil Maskelyne, David Devant, and ofcourse Harry Kellar.

In the film, “Two stage magicians engage in a battle to create the ultimate illusion while sacrificing everything they have to outwit each other.” This may seem like a preposterous premise or perhaps a bit extreme or hyperbolic but as a practitioner of the art and a student of its history for over 50 years I can tell you that the rivalries in magic always were and still are intense.

I don’t know about other professions because my heart has always been in magic but in magic Harry Kellar hired a mechanic from the Maskelyne show in order to obtain the secret of the Maskelyne levitation. Years later Houdini would collide with Blackstone over the packing crate escape, then Thurston would collide with Blackstone over the vanishing horse. Top performers still argue, even litigate over performance rights.

The world of magic has many traditions, one of the not so good ones is this rivalry and intense competition for material and sensation. In the film, we see two magicians portrayed wonderfully by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale go to extremes in an effort to be the best that I am sure most movie goers assumed to be a fiction concocted only for entertainment. But it’s not perhaps the specific illusions these characters create are the substance of fiction but the driving force behind them is no fiction.

Houdini once said, “The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in theevent of failure will mean sudden death.” How many times over the course of hiscareer do you suppose Houdini hung upside down hoisted several stories high overa busy city street strapped in a straight jacket, how many times was hemanacled in chains, locked in a crate, and tossed into a chilly even freezingbody of water? Once he was even buried alive.

The number of magicians who have lost their lives performing the bullet catch is staggering.

When I saw The Prestige, I was deeply moved because I understood the heart of the men portrayed in the film, I understood the motivation. I have gone to extremes myself generally not in terms of physical danger but certainly from overreaching financially to achieve my goals as a magician. By the way I have been injured attempting a sensational effect, thankfully not seriously. Performers always tell their audiences, “Don’t try this at home,” and yet that is exactly what magicians do.

The now famous Goldman’s dilemma applies as much to the magician as to the elite athlete.Dr. Goldman posed the question to elite athletes asking whether they would take a drug that would guarantee them overwhelming success in sport but cause them to die after five years. Approximately half the athletes responded that theywould take the drug. How many magicians would “take the drug?”  In The Prestige two of them do.

In the age before film and television the magician had more opportunity than at any time in history but there were more really good magicians too each wanting to be the best, each wanting the lucrative tour contract that would come with being the best and so the rivalries of the late 19th and early 20th century are the stuff of legend and it is from these very real legends that The Prestige drew its subject matter.

If you haven’t seen it, don’t miss it. rounding out the cast is Michael Caine , Piper Perabo, Scarlett Johansson, and the always amazing David Bowie as an illusion crafter. 

Much love,

David Dellman