Black Magic

Movie Information

In Brief: Orson Welles has a scene-stealing field day in this rather free adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' Joseph Balsamo, Mémoires d'un Médecin — the story of Cagliostro (née Joseph Balsamo) rechristened Black Magic (1949) and starring Welles as, of course, Cagliostro. And based on the on-screen evidence, Welles stole more than scenes. Venerable Russian character actor Gregory Ratoff directed his share of (mostly undistinguished) movies — none of which look anything like this one, making it pretty obvious that Welles had a hand in the direction. The fact that Ratoff was an actors' director (which is why actors liked him) probably made the arrangement amicable — and Welles referred to the experience as one of his happiest. (That he was also borrowing equipment to shoot bits of his Othello may have helped.) In any case, it may supposedly be Dumas, but it plays more like a variation on the 1931 Svengali — only with the ending of Welles' The Stranger (1946) tacked on. Whatever it is, it's certainly stylish fun.
Genre: "Historical" Melodrama
Director: Gregory Ratoff (Moss Rose)
Starring: Orson Welles, Nancy Guild, Akim Tamiroff, Frank Latimore, Valentina Cortese, Margot Grahame
Rated: NR



The name Edward Small probably means little or nothing to most of you, but he was one of the few to make a go of being a independent producer in studio system Hollywood — and the impressive longevity, since his career ran from 1929 to 1970. Less impressive, however, is his list of movies. Only a handful are remembered today — mostly costume dramas like Rowland V. Lee’s The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) and James Whale’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). The majority are forgotten — and forgettable — movies with B list stars. Small — who seems to have wanted to make up for the dimunitive sound of his name with the preposterously large logo featuring his inititals in gigantic 3-D lettering — was not a man of great taste. That perhaps explains his longevity.




His biggest contribution to Black Magic seems to have been staying out of the way, though the screenplay (by Hitchcock alumnus Charles Bennett) bears signs of being the kind of old-fashioned melodrama he favored. While it has its basis in Dumas, it really is just an elaborate variation on Svengali that turns Cagliostro into a lovestruck hypnotist who can’t get over a rather unexceptional blonde (Nancy Gould) who just happens to be a dead ringer for Marie Antoinette. It’s this more than anything that brings about his undoing, which hardly seems appropriate for such a larger than life character as Cagliostro. This foolishness doesn’t seem to bother Welles, though. He’s having a fine time doing magic tricks, hamming it up, and indulging his penchant for striking gothic imagery. And let’s be honest, that’s the whole reason the film holds our interest today. It’s not quite an Orson Welles film, but it’s close enough to make it worth a look as partly his. (You will have no trouble seeing his input.)

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Black Magic Sunday, April 19, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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