Pick a card. Any card. At least, think of a card.
You chose the Ace of Hearts.
Or maybe you didn’t. I’m not a card trickster, but my magic is much better in person (unless you did choose the Ace of Hearts, in which case I accept PayPal).
Magician movies are an underrated genre, perhaps because movies about magic, like the Harry Potter films, seem to be much more popular. Magician movies are those NOT involving wizards or witches or spells but rather movies involving illusionists, magicians, and/or stage performers. So, what are the best of that magical bunch? Well, I’m glad you asked because I happen to have already created that list (I’m psychic like that).
Here are the 10 greatest magician movies of all time! Voilà!
10. The Escape Artist (1982)
If I told you to consider watching a movie about a kid who wants to be an escape artist, and that the executive producer is Francis Ford Coppola, wouldn’t that be an offer you couldn’t refuse? I couldn’t either.
The movie starts with a kid, about 15 years old, walking into a newsroom of a city paper and telling the editor, “I’d like to issue a formal challenge to the police department. I’d like to be locked up in a solitary cell, chained and handcuffed, no guard, and I’ll set myself free within an hour.”
The kid happens to be the son of a Houdini-like escape artist who was famous at one time but passed away years earlier.
The film is not necessarily spectacular, and in fact it lacks in certain aspects, but it’s worthy enough to barely make our list thanks to numerous factors. It also happens to be the last film appearance of Desi Arnez, and if you know your 1930’s movie history, see if you can spot a couple of the Dead End Kids.
Also, keep a look out for Jackie Coogan who plays the owner of the magic store. He was Hollywood’s first child star sixty years earlier and his success changed the game for future child actors thanks to the Coogan Law, which redirects 15% of a child actor’s pay into a trust fund that only they can access when they grow up, something Coogan’s mother and step-father didn’t do as they spent the millions of dollars he made as a kid. Coogan earned further popularity as an adult when he played Uncle Fester in the 1960s TV show The Addams Family.
Lastly, and quite sadly, the childhood star here is Griffin O’Neal, son of Ryan O’Neal. Just a few years after this film was released, Griffin would be found negligent in a boating accident that killed Francis Ford Coppola’s son, Gian-Carlo Coppola. This is likely one of the reasons why O’Neal, despite his excellent performance in this film, has not ended up with a particularly extensive filmography.
9. The Great Buck Howard (2008)
Colin Hanks stars as Troy Gable, an aspiring writer who takes a job as the road manager of the titular character played by John Malkovich. The story is loosely based on the movie’s own writer and director, Sean McGinly, and his experience working for the Amazing Kreskin, who was popular for a trick where he would guess where the audience hid his paycheck for that night’s show.
Howard’s frustration about his career hits a peak when another trick of his is apparently completely missed by the invited media, but just when it seems the attention he sought for the trick has failed, it turns out that it only made it better.
Gable eventually moves on as his own dreams of being a writer begin to take flight. Meanwhile, the once popular Buck Howard strives to be popular again, and an appearance by Tom Arnold may ruin it all for the once Great Buck, but Howard stays true to his passion and Gable takes notice from afar.
8. An Honest Liar (2014)
This is the only documentary to make the list. It’s about the Amazing Randi, not to be confused with the Amazing Kreskin mentioned above (there was a magician’s nickname shortage at the time). Randi was at the height of his popularity in the 1970s and 1980s thanks in part to his many different appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He also had an ongoing feud with mentalist Uri Geller, part of which makes its way into this film; we even hear from Geller himself.
Randi spent his latter career exposing those that claimed their magic was real. His methods for achieving this were sometimes extreme, as you’ll see, but highly effective. Randi himself explains the many aspects of his career, making him something of a narrator in parts of the film. Randi died in 2020, age 92, a few years after this film’s release.
The documentary is exceptionally well done, making it an easy entry on this list and if you haven’t seen it yet then, when you do, you’ll undoubtedly be entertained throughout.
7. Houdini (1953)
The most popular biopic about Harry Houdini succeeds in many areas beyond Tony Curtis’ strong performance, despite depicting his death as happening while failing to escape from a water tank, which has only helped to fuel that falsehood.
The film is one of my favorites from that era, though I realize it probably has more to do with seeing Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, real life husband and wife, play husband and wife in the movie (the first of four films they would be in together). This wasn’t an easy task to pull off because both were contracted to separate studios. I have no idea how, but Paramount managed to convince Universal to borrow Tony Curtis while simultaneously convincing MGM to borrow Janet Leigh. I’m surprised neither told Paramount to disappear, but I’m glad they didn’t.
My only personal knock on the film, and I know this sounds incredibly backwards, is that it’s in color. Ok, hear me out. The real Houdini we see in our mind as being in black and white, thanks to newspapers of the time and any surviving black and white film of him. It also fits the dark aspect of his occupation. Seeing him depicted in color is like seeing Dracula dressed in a Hawaiian shirt. I know Houdini didn’t suck anyone’s blood, but the guy’s persona is sort of like a man of the shadows. Paramount apparently considered this, because it was supposed to be filmed black and white initially until they decided, because of the outfits, to shoot it in color.
Despite my colorful criticism, the film is still excellent and you should seriously pay more attention to my positives about the film because, after all, it is in my top 10.
6. Now You See Me (2013)
You probably don’t need me to write about this film, since it’s fairly recent and grossed some $350 million at the box office but, just in case you’ve managed to miss it (or its sequel) then think of this movie as magicians who can rob a bank while actually giving a performance elsewhere. If you ask me, that makes for a pretty good alibi.
The film is not without its disbelievers though, one of which is an alleged friend of mine. He told me that he saw it theaters and thought it was a waste of his money. I told him that the magicians simply robbed him as part of their act. He didn’t think that was funny.
Special TV Mention – The Amazing Falsworth
Since we’re at the halfway point of this list, I’d like to add one special mention that didn’t make this countdown but only because it’s a TV episode and not a movie. Also, did I or did I not tell you that that there was a magician’s nickname shortage at some point (Amazing!)
In 1985, Steven Spielberg created and produced the TV series Amazing Stories. Yes, there’s that “Amazing” word again. The idea was that every week would be a new short story, totally unrelated to the previous week’s show. New actors, new writers, a new director and so on. Many of these half hour stories were too weird for critics to praise, despite it winning 5 Emmys during its two-year run. When Apple TV+ decided to do new stories of the series in 2020, I decided to watch the original first season and I’m glad I did.
One of the most highly regarded episodes is The Amazing Falsworth starring the gone-too-soon Gregory Hines. In this sixth episode of the first season, Hines plays the titular character who performs for an audience at a nightclub. In reality, he uses his true psychic powers to wow the crowd. One night, those powers come into play when Falsworth encounters a serial killer.
This story by Steven Spielberg, directed by Peter Hyams, is so good that it won its writer, Mick Garris, the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best TV Episode of the Year (1986). That’s not an easy thing to do with just a half hour show, but you’ll applaud the decision after viewing this mini-gem.
5. The Grim Game (1919)
Imagine a movie about an innocent man who is unjustly jailed but then escapes despite being placed in seemingly inescapable positions numerous times. First he escapes from his chains, then he’s later momentarily recaptured and put in a straight jacket that he ultimately escapes from while hanging upside down from a building, then he’s caught in the forest by an animal trap only to escape from that, and he even hangs onto the underbelly of a car that takes off, as if he’s Indiana Jones, and acts as his getaway. Who would you want to star in that role? Well, if Houdini is your answer then you’re in luck, because that movie actually exists.
One of the best silent films you’ll likely ever see, especially the last half hour, is this outstanding 1919 film that shows Houdini himself doing many of the tricks that made him famous. His character is a fugitive trying to find the real guilty party but the police are still trying to capture him for good and they fail every time.
Before this movie was released, it was obviously heavily promoted thanks to it starring Houdini. However, an incident during filming made this movie more legendary for other reasons, even before it was released.
The script called for Houdini’s character to drop himself from one small plane into the seat of another while both were in flight. This would be accomplished by the first plane turning upside down above the other and Houdini’s character could hang from a rope to lower himself into the seat of the other plane.
The filming of the scene commenced without Houdini since the studio felt it too dangerous to risk the star, who was apparently against the decision. While filming the scene in mid-air, the two planes hit each other and ultimately crashed. The two pilots and Houdini’s stunt double all miraculously survived. Because no one was seriously hurt, the studio decided to adapt to the circumstance. They slightly changed the script so that they can use the footage in the film and, sure enough, the actual collision is what you see in the climax of the movie.
Houdini, his escape from numerous captures, and a real mid-air collision all in one movie? You might want to watch it, especially considering it was missing for decades and only recently found and re-released in 2015, nearly 100 years after its release.
4. The Illusionist (2010)
Not to be confused with another film of the same name from a few years earlier (and one I’ll mention shortly), this is the only animated movie on this countdown. First of all, it’s beautiful. The art is more than endearing and the story equally so. The titular illusionist finds a new audience in a girl named Alice who truly believes that his magic is real. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise so he embraces the idea, but it’s not easy to keep up the charade.
I can’t recommend this film enough, but don’t just listen to me: it has a 90% approval rating on Rotten tomatoes based on 134 reviews. The film is based on a story from critically acclaimed French director Jacques Tati some fifty years earlier. The script was never produced until this animated version.
3. Ansiktet (1958)
This masterful movie is known in America simply as The Magician, despite Ansiktet meaning “The Face” in Swedish. It features a small group of traveling magicians who visit a town where they intend to perform, only to be forced to instead perform for the town’s skeptical authorities, including the Police Superintendent and the Minister of Health. Thanks to having been jailed before for their games of deception, the magicians understand that this could be the performance of their lives, considering the consequences they believe the Police Superintendent will enforce if their so-called magic is exposed.
The lead magician whom their show focuses on is named Vogler and is played by the inimitable Max von Sydow. That’s not too surprising when you consider this film is the magic of director Ingmar Bergen, fellow Swede who worked with Max von Sydow 11 times, including the often praised Seventh Seal from a year earlier.
The visuals of this dark themed film, even those just of Vogler’s face, will certainly stick with you. It doesn’t hurt that Vogler’s grandmother performs as a 200-year old witch and does so without ever waiting for show time.
If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself rooting for the magician troupe, but (spoiler alert) their tricks are easily exposed before their show. Despite their apparent failure, they continue on and then their last trick, known as “The Invisible Chain”, triggers the final string events of the film that earn most of its critical praise and make for an exceptional final act.
The night before, the Police Superintendent was disappointed that Vogler could not perform any type of “Animal Magnetism”, which is more commonly known today as hypnotism. This ability is what Vogler is often known for. The Minister of Health was also disappointed but mostly because Vogler could not bring about the horrible visions to him that he heard the magician was capable of. Let’s just say, the troupe delivers one night later. However, this ultimately doesn’t end the way you would think. Just when you believe the magicians won, it practically all falls apart… or does it?
2. The Illusionist (2006)
The audience of this Neil Burger film is, in many ways, the audience that the illusionist is performing for. Edward Norton plays that illusionist, named Eisenheim, and does an exceptionally good job in doing so. It’s almost as if he’s trying to trick you just as much as he’s trying to trick the characters of the film.
The Illusionist is a love story between Eisenheim and the Duchess, played by Jessica Biel, but it’s also a love story between Eisenheim and magic itself.
Paul Giamatti is excellent as the Chief Inspector, prepared to arrest Eisenheim who seemingly communicates with the dead during his performances. The film takes place in late 1800s Vienna and it’s easy to appreciate the costume design and the overall feel of the movie.
As children, the future illusionist and the Duchess wanted to disappear together but could only wish it. As adults, the illusionist attempts to more than just wish it.
1. The Prestige (2006)
When I first began reading The Prestige by Christopher Priest, I was simply intrigued about the premise of the book. It’s a fictional tale about two dueling magicians in 1890s England. The story is uniquely told and quickly became one of my top ten favorite books of all time. Imagine my joy when hearing it will become a film. Of course, that joy was soon replaced by the realization that the film would likely not be as good as the book, but I am happily admitting that I was fool to think such a thing.
Certainly, there are differences and some changes from the book to the film, but this Christopher Nolan movie stands on its own and it more than delivers. I mean, it’s Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale starring as the two rival magicians. It’s magic. It’s illusion. It’s deception. It’s real. It’s unreal. It’s astounding. It’s prestigous!
The magicians try to figure out each other’s tricks but Hugh Jackman’s character, “The Great Danton,” becomes obsessed with his rival’s trick which is known as “The Transported Man.” His stage engineer and mentor, played by Michael Caine, tells him that the trick is not a trick at all. It’s real. It can’t be real, though, can it?
The film also has a guest star appearance by the one and only David Bowie who plays Tesla. It might be Bowie’s best performance in a film, and it would have completely stood out if not for the outstanding acting of the others, including Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall.
The film is extraordinary and deserves the constant praise it receives, including a 92% audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (and that’s based on the ratings of more than 250,000 people!) Truly, The Prestige is a magic of its own.