A young boy peels a carrot with a knife, chomping at the end as he readies his things to flee into the night. In his suitcase, he packs his clothes and a small collection of paperback magic books. He pauses mid-peel and picks up one of the paper-thin carrot scraps with thumb and forefinger. He lifts it to his face, smiles, and drops it into a glass of water with one swift movement. Suddenly it begins thrashing and turning. Somehow, before our very eyes, the carrot peel has become a live goldfish. The boy examines his handiwork then quietly continues packing.
This is one of the first magic tricks we see in Caleb Deschanel’s The Escape Artist, the 1982 adaptation of David Wagoner’s novel of the same name. There was no camera trickery involved, no subtle editing, and certainly no futuristic computer effects. What we see is what we get—an actual magic trick, meticulously rehearsed to perfection. Actor Griffin O’Neal—who was eighteen at the time of shooting but looked barely half that—practiced the trick for months with legendary sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay who’d been hired as a magic consultant. The two worked together on several other tricks: an eight card oil-and-water, a full-body levitation and vanish, and even an un-simulated water torture cell escape filmed in one excruciating unbroken seventy-two second long take. All of these are advanced illusions which have lost none of their power, even in this age of CGI wizardry. And yet it was the initial goldfish transformation that Ricky Jay later cited in the DVD commentary for the film as his personal favorite. His explanation was that, unlike the other illusions which were just magic tricks, this one was about the “magic behind the magic.” It was here that the film introduces us not just to a character, but to the world of magic itself where quick-witted men and women cheated and outsmarted their way through life, where everything was fodder for a deceit or a distraction, where everything was a prelude to something greater and more magnificent than our feeble minds could possibly imagine. There have been many great films about magicians, but The Escape Artist is one of the precious few about magic.
The film follows a kid named Danny Masters, the son of Harry Masters who was billed as the second greatest escape artist behind only Harry Houdini before getting arrested by the police during a robbery and killed while escaping from prison. Eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, he runs away from home to live with his uncle Burke (Gabriel Dell) and aunt Sibyl (Joan Hackett) who perform a mentalism act, cold reading nightclub audiences. He quickly ingratiates himself into their lives, but before long he runs afoul of Stu Quiñones (Raúl Juliá), the immature, troublemaking son of the local mayor. After a confrontation at a magic store—which Ricky Jay reveals in the commentary was largely reminiscent of a magic store from his own youth that used to be located in midtown Manhattan—Danny pickpockets Stu’s wallet only to discover that it’s stuffed with hot bills owed to the local mob. The two call an uneasy truce, form a tentative friendship, and embark on a mission to use Danny’s skills as an escape artist and lock-picker to break into the mayor’s office and gather incriminating evidence of his mob ties.
This is the plot, and Deschanel will be the first to admit that it doesn’t always make sense. Having spent the majority of his career as a cinematographer, not as a writer or director, storytelling was never his particular forte. He only got the gig directing the film after being personally approached by Francis Ford Coppola who asked him to adapt Wagoner’s novel through his American Zoetrope studio. In the DVD commentary he recorded with Ricky Jay, he confesses that he couldn’t get the story to completely cohere in the editing room, resulting in a narrative that requires puzzling leaps of logic to follow: if the petulant Stu is so concerned with getting his father to love him, why does he want to expose him?; why exactly does Danny care so much about busting the mayor when all he wants to be is a magician?; if Danny is so embarrassed by his father’s descent into crime, why does he want to emulate him? There’s definitely a throughline here about absent fatherhood, but it’s neither fully recognized nor developed.
Yet the film remains compulsively watchable and moving, operating less under the strictures of narrative and emotional logic than a larger melancholic aesthetic of wistfulness and gentle sadness. Much of this can be attributed to the film’s art direction which deliberately unmoors it from traditional time and space. Though obviously set in the first few decades of the twentieth century, Deschanel avoided assigning the film to any specific time period. Different scenes can look like they’re set anywhere from 1910 to 1940 with little consistency from shot to shot. There’s no Scorsesean or Spielbergian attention to historical detail as zoot suit slackers hang out in Norman Rockwell diners and Bernstein/Woodward reporters lounge in smoke-drenched newsrooms discussing quasi-Prohibition era crookery. There’s little sense of where the film might be located, either. Though much of it was shot in Cleveland, we never get a firm geographic grasp of where we are other than some vague cross between small-town America and the industrial midwest. The effect is one of unmistakable timelessness which transforms the story into a fairy tale about adolescence and becoming an adult. Equally important is the soundtrack courtesy of veteran film composer Georges Delerue whose lush, tumbling strings enervate things with a distinctly nineteenth century, distinctly European breed of romanticism.
The Escape Artist doesn’t always make sense, but the ultimate magic trick is that we don’t care. It’s a film of ceaseless yearning for something just beyond our reach, be it a parent’s love or a personal purpose. Watching it, one is reminded of Sylvain Chomet’s animated film The Illusionist (2010), based on a never-produced screenplay by legendary French actor/mime/director Jacques Tati written before his death. That film is also about fatherhood and magic, in this case focusing on an unemployed Parisian illusionist whose relationship with a little girl who thinks he has actual powers saves him from misery and loneliness. By the end, the illusionist realizes that she’ll never become her own woman if she keeps following him, so he abandons her one day with a note reading “Magicians do not exist.” To an extent, The Escape Artist agrees. But, it whispers, maybe the magic does.