Historically, magic tricks provoked the human imagination and led it into realms beyond the five senses. Magic appeared to be supernatural, the opposite of what can be observed and measured. It was metaphysical, which is why magicians were often seen as competition to religious leaders and often portrayed as sinister witches.
Then when movies came along, so did a whole new form of magic that stimulated the human imagination. The advent of cinema marked a new frontier for fantasy; in so doing, it probably also ended the careers of many magicians, for pulling a rabbit out of a hat simply couldn’t compete with the way movies held people spellbound.
Movies about magicians represent the crossroads between these two worlds—the old world where humans marveled at card tricks and suddenly appearing bouquets of flowers and the new world where people could time-travel and morph into other forms right before your eyes.
In this action-packed, minute-long feature by pioneering French filmmaker and special-effects maestro Georges Méliès, the director himself appears as a magician who conjures a wooden box on a table out of thin air. He jumps into the box, and then out jumps a skinny clown. The clown makes the box disappear and replaces it with a dinner table. When the clown sits down to eat, it disappears and is replace by a sinister devil character. The devil changes into a sculptor, who begins to chisel at a sculpture of a woman, which suddenly transforms into a real-life woman. At the very end, a man in Elizabethan garb appears to kick the sculptor in the butt. As with most early films about magic, the special effects were achieved via jump cuts.
Another minute-long magician film from the dawn of filmmaking, this one was produced in America by Thomas Edison’s Manufacturing Company. It begins in what appears to be someone’s parlor, where a magician wearing a top hat walks onstage. After bowing, he removes both his coat and hat, tosses them up in the air, and they magically disappear. Then he takes a handkerchief, holds it over his dress pants, and when he removes the handkerchief, his pants are replaced by knickers. After waving a magic wand, a table covered in tattered paper appears. When the magician shakes the paper, three geese fly out of it. Edison’s company sold the film to theaters for $9.
Clocking in at 96 seconds, this is the longest of our three super-short magician films from the very early Silent Era. It was also produced by Thomas Edison. According to a description by Edison films, “On a stage a professor of magic is performing some wonderful experiments, and when he requests some assistance Happy Hooligan immediately volunteers his services and climbs upon the platform.” Suddenly the magician disappears, replaced by a pair of wooden barrels. Every time the hooligan knocks them down, they manage to sit upright again. Various characters—clowns, ghosts, a goblin, and a demon—appear, all of them assaulting the hapless hooligan. According to Edison films, it all formed “a series of most startling and laughable effects entirely new to animated photography.”
In one of the most beloved children’s films of all time that mixes elements of witchcraft and magic, Judy Garland stars as Dorothy Gale, a girl from Kansas who risks losing her beloved dog Toto after a mean local woman threatens to tell the sheriff that Toto bit her. But then a tornado suddenly sweeps through Kansas, lifting Dorothy, Toto, and their house up into the air and causing it to finally land in the magical Land of Oz—but not without landing on the Wicked Witch of the East and killing her. This causes the witch’s sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, to seek vengeance. Dorothy learns that her only safe route back to Kansas is through the magical assistance of the Wizard of Oz. She is assisted in her journey by Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, who lends Dorothy the dead witch’s magical Ruby Slippers. En route to the Wizard, Dorothy meets a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) who wants a brain, a Tin Woodman (Jack Haley) who wants a heart, and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) who needs courage. When they finally arrive to see the Wizard, he at first rejects them. Later, Toto pulls aside a curtain behind which the Wizard is hiding, revealing him to be an ordinary old cranky man rather than anyone with supreme magical powers. It turns out that he, too, is from Kansas, and he offers to take Dorothy and Toto back home in his hot-air balloon.
This fictionalized account of world-renowned escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926) stars Tony Curtis in the title role and his wife Janet Leigh as a woman who at first rejected his advances but then fell in love with him and became his assistant. It traces his humble beginnings portraying a “wild man” in carnivals and then meeting his wife Bess (Janet Leigh), who convinces him to leave the carnival act and take a job at a lock factory. But when Harry wins the annual magicians’ dinner award by escaping from a straitjacket, he earns a ticket to Europe and finds his first major successes as a magician, famously escaping from a jail cell in London that was said to be escape-proof. Houdini also focuses on Houdini’s most famous feat, which was escaping from a locked trunk beneath the ice in the Detroit River.
Released in Sweden as Ansiktet, this black-and-white film by legendary director Ingmar Bergman stars Max Von Sydow (who played Jesus in The Greatest Story Every Told) as Dr. Albert Emanual Vogler, who travels through Europe as the primary performer in “Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater.” Since the touring troupe’s presentations involve the supernatural, local authorities in Sweden want to investigate and possibly ban them for being unscientific. The film focuses on the interactions between Vogler and authorities in one small Swedish town, who find that they may not quite be prepared to understand exactly what Vogler is doing.
Starting with Blood Feast in 1963 and extending well into the 1970s, director Herschell Gordon Lewis invented and popularized the slasher genre with films that are almost unimaginably bloody even by today’s standards. The Wizard of Gore features unsettling footage of women being stabbed in the mouth, drilled through the head, cut in two with a buzzsaw, and being disemboweled by a pile-driver as their bloody viscera hang out. The plot involves a magician who calls himself “Montag the Magnificent” who taunts his audiences about the very nature of reality. The women involved in his performances all seem to survive the goring he gives them onstage, yet they all soon die later of the exact same injuries. A reporter and her boyfriend, suspicious that Montag is a murderer, begin to investigate. Without spoiling the plot, at the end the viewer is left wondering whether anything they just witnessed was real.
In this Hong Kong horror film that was released as Jiang tou, an evil magician named Shan Chien-mi lives secluded in the woods and works his magic for anyone who wants revenge against an enemy. In return for his favors, they give him gold. A young man named Xu Nuo is in love with a woman named Chu-ying, and they decide to get married. But a jealous widow named Luo Yin has her own designs on Xu, so she seeks the evil magician’s assistance in driving a wedge between the two young lovers. Shan Chien-mi works his magic, and on what was supposed to be their wedding day, Xu breaks up with Chu and begins seeing Luo Yin. But this isn’t enough for the hateful widow—she also requests Shan’s assistance in giving Chu a fatal disease. Meanwhile, a good magician concludes that Shan Chien-mi is up to no good and he finally intervenes, saving Chu before she dies. The sequel Black Magic 2 was released in 1976.
In this Canadian/Polish collaborative children’s drama that was released in Quebec as Le jeune magicien and in Poland as Cudowne dziecko, a 12-year-old boy named Peter Meller (Rusty Jedwab) feels ostracized by kids at school because he didn’t receive any time on the ice during a local hockey game. But when his parents take him to a magic show, he suddenly comes alive when the magician selects him to be his assistant for a trick. Peter dives into the world of magic and also accidentally realizes he possesses powers of telekinesis. But this further distances him from the kids at school and alienates his parents. But when a national emergency erupts, he is able to use his powers to save the country and becomes a national hero, finally gaining the acceptance he craved.
In this road-trip comedy, Til Schweiger stars as a flamboyant aspiring magician who is obsessed with Siegfried and Roy. He teams up with a conman (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) and an attractive waitress (Claire Forlani), and they take their magical act to Las Vegas. After getting there, they meet a charismatic and pushy manager (Alan Arkin) who tries to take them to the top. According to the AV Club, “Magicians gets by largely on the strength of its modest charm, but its generous comic spirit keeps it engaging and brisk, right up to a surprisingly touching finale.”
In this, the first installment of a film series based on the massively successful book series by J. K. Rowling, Daniel Radcliffe stars in the title role as a young orphaned boy who lives with his aunt and uncle who don’t try to hide their resentment for him. Then one day at age eleven, Harry is visited by a man who informs him that he is actually a wizard and gives him an invitation to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. He soon learns that his parents were also wizards and were murdered by an evil wizard named Voldemort. At Hogwarts, Harry also learns that Voldemort is plotting to steal the Sorceror’s Stone. The film led to seven sequels: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002); Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004); Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005); Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007); Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009); Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010); and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011).
Set in Vienna in the late 1800s, this adaptation of a Steven Millhauser short story stars Edward Norton as a humble cabinetmaker’s son named Eisenheim whose teenaged romance with the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel) was thwarted due to their stark class differences. Fifteen years after they parted, Eisenheim has become a famous illusionist and accidentally meets Sophie again while performing a trick onstage. They instantly recognize one another; she still has and treasures the locket he gave her so many years ago. The trouble is that Sophie is engaged to Crown Prince Leopold, a man known for violence toward women and who only seeks to marry Sophie to extend his domain. Leopold and Eisenheim wind up clashing on the latter’s terrain—a world of magic and illusion and sudden, inexplicable escapes.
Hugh Jackman stars as Robert “The Great Danton” Angier, and Christian Bale portrays Alfred “The Professor” Borden. They used to be a magician’s assistants, but after the tragic death of Angier’s wife during a performance, they become sworn enemies. Over years, they battle one another to perfect a disappearing trick known as “The Transported Man,” both of them arriving at wildly different methods to achieve the same result. But when one of them drowns to death in the midst of performing a trick, the other is tried for his murder.
Guy Pearce stars as Harry Houdini on a tour of Britain in 1926, the year that the real Houdini died. Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as an Endinburgh-based con artist named Mary McGarvie, who along with her teen daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan), attempts to swindle Houdini out of his money. As in real life, Houdini switched his attention away from being an escape artist and attempting to prove that psychics and mentalists were frauds. He wrote down his mother’s dying words to him, sealed them in an envelope, and offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could correctly guess what his mother said. But when Houdini and Mary finally meet, the dynamic changes when they fall in love.
Jean-Claude Donda stars as Tatischeff, AKA Tati, a French illusionist in the late 1950s who finds himself with increasingly smaller and lower-paying gigs due to the fact that rock ‘n’ roll has captured the public’s imagination. He moves to Scotland and attempts to scrape together whatever work he can find as an illusionist. While Tati is staying in a rooming house, a young woman named Alice (Eilidh Rankin) drops a bar of soap in the hallway while she’s cleaning. She is mesmerized when Tati picks up the bar of soap and magically transforms it into a new one. She is further charmed when he suddenly appears with a pair of red shoes she’s been wanting to buy but couldn’t afford. The pair engage in a romantic relationship that is cut short one night when Alice leaves Tati for another man. Tati releases his pet rabbit, whom he used to pull out of a hat, into the woods, sells his belongings, writes Alice a note saying “Musicians do not exist,” and leaves Scotland.
Tatiana (Estelle Raskin) is a young and beautiful aspirant magician with an obsession/crush on famous Las Vegas illusionist Krell Darius (Billy Zane). Together with her close friends Elena (Christina Vidal) and Vera (Sarah Jayne Jensen), they travel to Las Vegas in the hopes of meeting Darius. Tatiana wants to ask him about the mysterious death of her mother, a magician’s assistant, twenty years prior. But after arriving in Vegas, Elena goes out on the town one night and winds up dead. As two Vegas cops work on the murder investigation, we begin to get unexpected glimpses into Tatiana’s dark past.
Nicolas Cage stars as Balthazar Blake, a modern sorcerer in Manhattan and apprentice of the legendary Merlin the Magician (James A. Stephens). With Merlin’s assistance, Balthazar has kept the forces of evil at bay ever since ancient Europe in the 700s, when Merlin went to war with the wicked witch Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krige). Merlin had sealed both Morgana and her henchman Horvath (Alfred Molina) inside a nested doll. But if the two were ever to escape from the doll, it would signal the end of human civilization. Balthazar can’t keep them at bay alone, though, so he recruits his friend Dave (Jay Baruchel) as an apprentice.
Asa Butterfield stars as Hugo Cabret, a 12-year-old boy living in Paris in 1931. His widowed father (Jude Law) teaches him how to fix clocks and other mechanical devices. His dad also takes him to see movies, and Hugo especially loves the films of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). When Hugo’s father dies, his uncle takes him to a train station, where Hugo winds up fixing the clocks, living between the walls, and scrounging for food after his uncle disappears. He spends his spare time trying revive an automaton his father built that won’t operate without a special key. Hugo believes there’s a magical secret hidden within the automaton, so he makes it his life’s mission to find the special key.
This documentary is a biography of Ricky Jay, a world-famous magician, author, historian, and actor who has appeared in films by Paul Thomas Anderson and David Mamet. Jay narrates the film, which uses archival footage from an appearance in the 1970s on The Dinah Shore Show where he plays Three-Card Monte with comedian Steve Martin. The film goes all the way back to his early childhood, where at age four he was an apprentice of his magician grandfather, segueing into nostalgic reminiscences about magician legends such as Slydini, Al Flosso, Cardini, and Dai Vernon. More broadly, the film serves as an inside peek into the world of magicians and the oddballs who are obsessed with them.
Joe Tyler Gold wrote, directed, and stars in this low-budget film as Kant, an amateur magician who attempts to go pro after losing his day job. He enters an international magicians’ competition but winds up falling in love with a female street magician (Valerie Hillman) against whom he’s competing. He now must face an inner conflict where he wants to win the competition but also the girl—and he can’t win both. Desperate Acts of Magic is filled with performances by actual magicians.
Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) is a teenager who lives in the small backwater town of Gatlin, SC, which he desperately seeks to escape. He meets a strange new girl in town, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), and they quickly fall for one another. They share their secrets, dreams, and stories about their families. Lena is rejected by the other kids at school because her father, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), is thought to be a Satanist. But the truth is that their family are “Casters,” who have supernatural powers of telekinesis and time travel. She also tells Ethan that she is a witch, but she won’t know until her sixteenth birthday whether she will be designated as a good or evil witch. Together the lovers seek a way to break the family spell before Lena turns sixteen.
Four small-time magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco) receive invitations to a remote address. Suddenly, a year later, they are the Four Horsemen, top-drawing Las Vegas stage illusionists. At one sold-out show, they actually rob a bank remotely and shower the audience in cash. FBI and Interpol agents are assigned to the case to figure out their secret. Even a professional illusionist debunker named Thaddeus Bradley has trouble getting to the heart of their secret. With one performance after the next, the Four Horsemen pull off a series of very public heists, drown the audience in cash, and evade detection.
In this story set in the Wizard of Oz universe, James Franco stars as a small-time sleazy magician named Oscar Diggs who, like Dorothy Gale, is suddenly swept away from Kansas and lands in the magical Land of Oz. But just when he thinks his fortunes have taken a turn for the better, he encounters three witches—Glinda (Michelle Williams), Theodora (Mila Kunis), and Evanora (Rachel Weisz)—who suspect that he might not be the wizardly savior that Oz has been anticipating. In a fight for his very existence, he must use all the magical powers he has to outwit the witches and become not only the wonderful Wizard of Oz but a reformed and moral man.
Steve Carell stars in the title role and Steve Buscemi stars as Anton Marvelton, Burt’s partner in magic. Together the two have ruled the Las Vegas magic scene for years. Their show is called “The Incredible Burt & Anton: A Magical Friendship!” starring the “Incredible Burt Wonderstone & Anton Marvelton,” and they perform at a theater in Bally’s that is named after them. Burt and Anton have been friends since they were two bullied teenagers named Anthony Mertz and Albert Wenzlestein, but now their thirty-year friendship is forming cracks because Burt is starting to believe that he’s the star of the show and Anton is merely unnecessary baggage. Complicating matters is the fact that they are suddenly seeing competition from a wild street musician named Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), whose following grows with every mind-bending stunt.
It’s 1928 in Berlin, and an obscure magician named Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) seeks to find his childhood friend Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), who has become a famous magician who calls himself Wei Ling Soo and wears heavy makeup and affects an accent to delude people into thinking he’s Chinese. Burkan wants his old friend to travel to southern France with him and expose the American clairvoyant Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) as a fraud. But when Stanley meets Sophie, not only does he fall in love with her, he can find no way to explain her psychic powers and ability to make things levitate.
This seven-part BBC TV series of one-hour episodes was based on the 2004 novel of the same name by British writer Susanna Clarke. It is set in England during the 1800s and based on the idea that England was once a magical land three hundred years prior and that magic had returned in the persons of two men: Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. And “magic” is not meant by “conjuring tricks and illusions,” but by actual, inexplicable magic. Together Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell pool their magical powers to aid England in its efforts during the Napoleonic Wars.
In this film based on the Marvel comic-book character Doctor Steven Strange, the title character, a famous neurosurgeon, gets into a car accident that severely damages his hands and makes it impossible for him to ever perform surgery again. He spends his life’s savings seeking a surgical cure that never comes. After learning that a paraplegic once walked again, he finds the man, who tells him he was healed in Katmandu. Doctor Strange travels there and is introduced to “The Ancient One,” a woman who introduces him to the astral plane and explains that Earth is protected by three Sanctums in London, Hong Kong, and New York. But a former protege of The Ancient One has turned to the dark side and seeks to destroy the three Sanctums and take over the world. Strange and The Ancient One team together to fend off the minions of the Dark Dimension.
Jacob Latimore stars as Bo, a young LA street magician who takes care of his little sister after their parents died. He doesn’t make too much money from his magic, so he also deals drugs on the side. In order to perfect one illusion where sharp objects appear to pass through his arm, he has set up an electromagnetic device on his arm that makes metal items levitate, but the device has led to a severe arm infection. But when he falls deep into debt to his drug supplier, he must rely on his magical abilities to save both his and his little sister’s lives.
This documentary tells the fascinating story of Richard Turner, widely considered one of the greatest card magicians in the world—a reputation that is made even greater by the fact that Richard is blind. Now in his sixties, both Richard and his sister went blind when they were children. He learned his card abilities when a teacher for the blind supplied him with books on tape about card games. Although his blindness is a natural fascination for viewers, Richard also seems to regret that people focus on his disability rather than his natural abilities at magic. The film quotes him: “I’m Richard Turner. I represent why you should never play cards with strangers.”
As of late 2021, Colin Trevorrow, director of Jurassic World: Dominion, is slated to direct War Magician, a WWII drama based on a book by David Fisher. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Jasper Maskelyne, an English illusionist who used his magical powers to help defeat Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel, leader of the Nazi forces in Africa. Maskelyne teamed with an international “gang” of magicians from Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa in their quest to vanquish the Nazis.