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October 18-24, 2006

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'The Prestige'

Photograph by Stephen Vaughan
The rabbit was 'this' big: Hugh Jackman talks magic with Michael Caine in 'The Prestige.'


Christopher Nolan pulls a thrilling rabbit out of his hat with 'The Prestige,' a tale of dueling magicians

By Richard von Busack

A MAGICIAN once told me that the essential component of a trick is to take something precious—a silk hat, a gold watch, a young girl—and put it in peril in order to concentrate an audience's attention. This is the opposite of the way The Prestige states the element of magic.

Magic is a three-step process according to Cutter (Michael Caine), a builder of stage-magic props in Edwardian England. First, says Cutter, comes "the pledge," the presentation of something ordinary. Second comes "the turn," the moment of transformation. And at last comes the instant of returning: "the prestige," in which the object resumes its proper form. Christopher Nolan's luminously scary thriller concerns a pair of seemingly civilized magicians; they turn themselves into monsters of ambition and can't turn themselves back.

Mr. Angier (Hugh Jackman) is murdered onstage during a performance of his famous "Transported Man" trick; he plunges through a trapdoor into an escape-proof cabinet and drowns.

At the trial of the accused killer, Borden (Christian Bale), the film reveals the origin of the feud between the two. Years previously, Angier and Borden were partners, until Angier's wife (Piper Perabo) perished in a drowning-booth trick, leaving Angier widowed and blaming Borden's incompetence for the death.

In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Angier's murder was the culmination of this lethal feud between these two magicians, escalating from sabotage to maiming to murder. The woman who later came between the two men is Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), a decorative corset-filler, brightly white under the limelight, whose cozy, plush smirk conceals all of her motives. Watching her work her way between the two magicians, one is never sure if she is pledged or turned.

The rivalry comes to murder over the possession of the perfect illusion: a trick of transporting the magician from one side of the stage to the other. As Clarke's Law has it, advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Unveiling a brand-new contraption, Cutter says, "This wasn't built by a magician. It was built by a wizard." In fact, Nicola Tesla himself has unwillingly lent his talents to the rivalry.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister shot the film in Panavision with an unbraced camera. As in Steven Soderbergh's films, what we see is not shaky or jittery—but not fixed to a spot either. And the color isn't goosed up with a digital intermediate. The standard visual cliché posits the past as a place of faded hues. That's why it is noteworthy to see a film that insists that the past had its own shades of heat and cold and dirt.

Touches of some classic horror films turn up: a savory bit of The Fly, for instance. A cloaked, slouch-hatted magician careening through dark alleys reminds one happily of the Vincent Price version of House of Wax. And the maiming of Borden in a sabotaged trick must be some sort of reference to the real-life story of Harold Lloyd.

The simple brutality of the conflict—and the simple horror of unleashed ambition—fits Nolan's faith in the shuttling narrative. This is the best movie I've ever seen about stage magic, and the first that really made the art of magic seem unholy. Yet it comes at a time when there are a number of magic movies, such as Scoop and The Illusionist. These other films are like skits compared to the diabolism here.

The Prestige is like a Penn and Teller performance in which professional arrogance is upfront, as is the urge to show delicate things in peril. It's fair to the audience that Nolan doesn't pin the evil on the audience's bloodthirstiness. According to one line, "If people really believed what I did onstage, they wouldn't applaud, they'd scream."

The more extreme parts of the story—about the proper way to disappear a canary—seem historically plausible, and not just because we see eminent magic historian Ricky Jay lurking about, playing a stage assistant. The Prestige carries a Humane Society seal, but it traffics in some distressing illusions. Be warned; it's heavier into horror than into suave charm.

Although the film emphasizes the crucial third part of a magic trick in its title, the final reveal isn't as powerful as it should be. The film needs one last horrifying shot as the depth of the magicians' ambition became clear; here, the portable camera should yield to a crane shot, to a pullback like the end of Citizen Kane, to show the terrible things lurking behind one derelict stage.

Movie Times The Prestige (PG-13), directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Priest, photographed by Wally Pfister and starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, opens Oct. 20.

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