Houdini: Part 1 & 2
September 15, 2014 3:04 PM - Season 1, Episode 1 - Subscribe

Follow the man behind the magic as he finds fame, engages in espionage, battles spiritualists and encounters the greatest names of the era, from U.S. presidents to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Grigori Rasputin.

Wikipedia summary of Part 1:
Part one focuses on the humble beginnings of Harry Houdini as a young boy named Erich Weiss, who enlists his brother Dash to help him practice magic after seeing his very first magician in his hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. He changes his name to "Harry Houdini" after his favorite magician Robert Houdin and starts out performing card tricks at sideshows in a traveling circus with his wife Bess as a "two-bit" act. His career soon takes off on the American vaudeville circuit as a master illusionist before achieving international fame as an escape artist, performing for the likes of royalty and celebrities. He becomes the world-famous master magician "The Great Houdini". But through his fame, Harry is recruited by MI5 to run espionage missions with William Melville to spy on the Kaiser in Berlin while balancing his death-defying acts in front of massive audiences.
Wikipedia summary of Part 2:
Part two examines how Harry Houdini must adapt to the constantly changing modern world as the industrial age comes to an end. As the invention of moving pictures threatens to steal Harry's spotlight in 1914, he has to come up with bigger and better escapes to get his audience back, and decides to bring the show to them. When his mother dies, Harry is determined to communicate with her through mediums and clairvoyants, however, they prove to be unsuccessful. He then dedicates his life exposing and debunking these fake spiritualists, including Arthur Conan Doyle's wife, Lady Doyle. In the final years of his life, Harry promises Bess no more death-dying feats and goes back to stage magic before succumbing to a succession of fatal blows to the abdomen from a disgruntled fan while backstage in his dressing room after performing his last act in Detroit
Further background information about the genesis and filming of the History Channel's Houdini from Wikipedia:

History first announced the development of a Houdini biopic miniseries with Adrien Brody attached to star on April 10, 2013. The series was officially green-lit on August 19, 2013, with Kristen Connolly announced as Brody's co-star and Uli Edel as director. The screenplay was to be penned by veteran author and filmmaker Nicholas Meyer, based on the 1976 book Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait by his father, Bernard C. Meyer. Patrizia von Brandenstein and Karl Walter Lindenlaub were also announced as production designer and cinematographer, respectively. On September 17, 2013, it was announced that actor Evan Jones had been added to the cast as Houdini's assistant Jim Collins.


Filming on the miniseries began on September 30, 2013. It was shot entirely in Budapest, Hungary (coincidentally the real Harry Houdini's birthplace), which executive producer Gerald W. Abrams described as having "more turn-of-the-century architecture – that’s the 19th century – than almost any city in Western culture." Brody, who had studied magic as a child, performed many of the show's stunts himself, including the suspended strait jacket escape and the famous Chinese Water Torture Cell.
Directed by: Uli Edel

Music by: John Debney

Trailer; tagline: "Iron will made him famous. Genius made him legendary."

Interview with Adrian Brody to promote Houdini (Fox 5 WNYW)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (6 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have to watch this. Anyone else remember the TV movie with Paul Michael Glaser? (Or am I just that old?)
posted by xingcat at 7:17 PM on September 15, 2014

For those of us who were kinda familiar with Houdini and raised an eyebrow at some of the assertions, here's the Wild About Harry Fact Check. Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of things that are... let us say "historically suspect," particularly the hamfisted espionage segments.

But, okay, Hollywood changes facts for biopics to make more compelling stories. So, putting that aside, this was... pretty good. I mean, there's a reason it was on History Channel and not in theaters, but the how-he-did-it bits were well done, and Adrien Brody does a competent enough job.
posted by Etrigan at 7:19 AM on September 16, 2014

Adrien Brody blew the doors off! He wasn't just turning up for the paycheck - I felt he gave it his all. I was really impressed with his performance.

I don't think this is the most factually accurate depiction of Houdini's life, but it is BUCKETS OF FUN. I went from "oh this is going to be really cheesy, isn't it?" to "hey, the production values are pretty damn good" to "they did a really excellent job with the storytelling here".

And I found the music to be one of the crucial aspects of the thing. Apparently John Debney is good at what he does, because the musical choices enhanced many scenes, rather than detracting from them. Big fan of the music in this one.

I found Brody's flat accent a bit distracting at first but then got used to it.

Brody talks about his participation in the magic scenes in the interview linked above, fyi. There's a very funny moment when one of the interviewers asked him what he had to do at the audition to convince them to cast him - he handles it rather well.

I don't know, I guess I'm kind of a fan, 10/10, would watch again, but I would love to hear others' response. I thought the pacing and incidents in his life, as portrayed, were highly entertaining. It owes a lot to The Prestige (2006). The magic alone worth the price of admission.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:57 PM on September 16, 2014

I've just read some reviews (linked on the sidebar) and I must have terrible taste. I did notice some of the narration was klunky but I loved the "cheese" factor there. The critics did not.

Also I liked the repeated shots of Houdini being struck in the stomach (ouch!), although at least one reviewer thought it was because the History Channel thought its viewers too dumb to understand how Houdini died. It was a strategy that beautifully paid off when Houdini's mother died and we get - what else? - the same shot of being punched in the stomach. This is a feature, folks, not a bug.

The Slant review is particularly damning. "Houdini lacks emotional depth..." No, YOU lack emotional depth! Harumph! *exits stage left*
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:12 PM on September 16, 2014

Sorry man I tried to like this but so far (almost finished the first one) it's somewhat awful. Constant overwrought narration, trite and anachronistic dialogue, dorky fast motion shots and sub-Se7en sPoOky electro soundtrack at all times, unfocused jump-cut plotting, and cheap looking CSI ZOOMS. It might as well be Turn. I'll keep going because I really want to like it, but man, its pretty ridiculous so far. Houdini's life and work and milieu is so amazing and fascinating, why fluff up the story of magic with a bunch of idiotic subplots? They might have well just added vampires.

And the pace! It's like hey yall how about letting a moment breathe for ONE SECOND before vaunting into another seemingly unconnected but probably temporally subsequent one.

AND WHERE IS THE MAGIC? Every trick is portrayed in such a paltry way. AND WHY DO THE COPS GET MAD WHEN HE ESCAPES? I am disappoint.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:45 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also I liked the repeated shots of Houdini being struck in the stomach (ouch!), although at least one reviewer thought it was because the History Channel thought its viewers too dumb to understand how Houdini died.

I was somewhat annoyed by the payoff (not the one where his mother died, which I admit was pretty good, except they'd done that for every other emotional "hit" as well). Snopes sums it up well, but attributing it to a grudge against Houdini is just mawkish.
posted by Etrigan at 6:55 PM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

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