Thursday 17 July 2008

Black Magic (1949)

I've seen a lot of films called Black Magic. This one came out in 1949 and was set in Paris in 1848, 101 years earlier. We begin at the house of Alexandre Dumas, where Dumas pere (Berry Kroeger) explains to Dumas fils (a lively and bright eyed Raymond Burr) about the man who is filling his mind with fever and making his pen very busy indeed. With so many great novels behind him, he's driven by this story. The character is Count Cagliostro, initially known as Joseph Balsamo, who we first meet as a young gypsy brat played by Annielo Mele, who sinks his teeth into the hand of the Viscount de Montagne, who has condemned his parents to death as devils.

Soon he's a grown up gypsy brat, played by no less an actor than Orson Welles himself. He's hawking snake oil when he's discovered by Dr Franz Mesmer, at this point a scientist struggling to make his theories accepted. Mesmer sees Balsamo cure a woman who has accidentally drunk lamp oil, using only the power of hypnotism. Balsamo has no clue what hypnotism is, he's just a natural, but Mesmer knows precisely what it is. Unfortunately for him, once educated into what this talent really is, Balsamo has no interest in helping Mesmer prove anything when he can help himself, all the way to the side of the king in Paris.

Welles has fun with the part, and what he does would be seen as dynamic and powerful for any other actor. However this is Orson Welles and he's actually being subtle and restrained in a role that had lots of potential for wild and flamboyant overacting. He doesn't just rise in power, he runs a set of games to achieve that power. By chance when travelling through France he comes upon the man who killed his parents, the Viscount de Montagne. De Montagne has his own plans for power, having kidnapped a young lady called Lorenza who is the spitting image of Marie Antoinette, wife of the Dauphin. Cagliostro instead uses her in his own plans, to obtain both power and revenge, and he charges De Montagne 5000 francs to boot along with an introduction at the court of King Louis XV.

Surprisingly the film doesn't just belong to Welles, though nobody else is dominant enough to steal it from him. Instead it becomes a consistent film with quite a few decent performances: from Nancy Guild in a dual role as Lorenza and Marie Antoinette; from Akim Tamiroff and Valentina Cortese as the gypsies who accompany Balsamo all the way through his career; Margot Grahame as Madame duBarry, the consort of Louis XV. None are outstanding, but all are decent and the story runs along nicely in a very strong linear fashion in one long flashback, unencumbered by fiendish complexities. These would have been as easy to throw into the mix as overacting, but they aren't needed because of the careful manoeuvres that really provide our story.

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