Writer: Harry Houdini
Producer: Harry Houdini
Cast: Harry Houdini, Jane Connelly, Arthur Maude
Year of release: 1922
Reviewed from: UK VHS (VRI, 1993)
Believe it or not, Harry Houdini also made films - several of them - and the best thing that can be said about them, based on this example, is that as an actor he was a great escapologist. He also wrote this movie. It seems to have been his only attempt at writing a ‘scenario’ and, well, he should have stuck to acting.
The film opens with an Arctic expedition reduced to two blokes, one sled and a couple of huskies. The chaps are Dr Gregory Sinclair (Erwin Connelly, who appeared with Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr and with Valentino in Son of the Sheik) and a grim-looking French-Canadian named Francois Duval (Frank Montgomery, a prolific director-turned actor) who is just about to leave the ill Sinclair to die when he spots an old ship, frozen into the ice.
Duval and the suddenly much-better-thank-you Sinclair explore and find a ship’s log that shows the vessel was abandoned just over one hundred years ago in 1820 and a thousand miles from their present position. On the deck, Duval examines a chunk of ice and - blimey, there’s a fella inside it! He chips away the ice then drags the body into the captain’s cabin where he and Sinclair manage to revive the ‘man from beyond’ somehow.
This is our hero, Howard Hillary. (Houdini had a thing for his initials and in other films played characters named Harvey Hanford, Harry Harper and Heath Haldane.) A letter to his sister which Sinclair finds in the cabin tells us that he joined the Barkentine as First Mate then fell in love with the daughter of one of the passengers, Felice Norcross (Erwin Connelly’s wife Jane, who was also in Sherlock Jr), inciting the jealousy of the ship’s captain (Luis Alberni, who had an uncredited role in the 1934 The Black Cat). In a dreadful storm, Hillary and Felice were lowered over the side in a boat but she begged him to return to the ship and save her father (Yale Benner). Back on board, in an argument with the captain, Hillary was knocked out and everyone else then abandoned ship. This is shown in flashback and makes about as much sense as what I have just typed.
Now here’s where the film gets seriously screwy because Sinclair and Duval resolve to not tell Hillary, for now, that a century has passed. They take him back to upper class US society - and they still don’t tell him. You would think that at the very least the changes in fashion would confuse or puzzle him - oh, and the motor cars that he sees - but apparently not.
They reach the home of Sinclair’s brother-in-law, Dr Crawford Strange, just as Sinclair’s niece is about to be married to her oily neighbour Dr Gilbert Trent (Arthur Maude). The marriage is interrupted and then abandoned because - wouldn’t you just know it? - Miss Strange is a spit for Hillary’s lost love Felice (and played by Jane Connelly too, naturally). Oh, and she’s called Felice too. Hillary’s ravings see him dragged off to a lunatic asylum where he is securely tied in a straitjacket and strapped to the floor of a cell (very humane treatment of a mentally ill person, I must say).
At this point, our interest perks up. Houdini has been tied up: how will he escape? Felice, curious to know more about this man who claims to know her, goes to the asylum to see him but when the warders open the door to his surprisingly spacious cell... he has gone! What a cheesy swizz! You pay good money to see an escapologist and he escapes while we’re watching other people.
In actual fact his escape is shown in its entirety a little later when he sneaks into Felice’s boudoir and he explains it with a flashback. But it is still thoroughly dull. He struggles and wriggles on the floor until eventually he is free of the straps and the straitjacket, then he ties them together into a rope and uses that to escape through the high, barred window. I’m sure Harry H really did escape, and it’s shown in one continuous take - but so what? If we had seen him do this on stage after members of the audience had fastened the straps and attested to the soundness of the straitjacket that would be jolly impressive, but this is the movies. It’s not real. It’s all pretend. We know he wasn’t really encased in ice, so why should we think - or, frankly, care - about his apparent bondage? Any actor, anyone at all, could have done the same thing. We don’t even get any close-ups of the situation to allow us to examine the buckles and belts, it’s just one slightly fuzzy bloke wriggling out of a slightly fuzzy white get-up on the floor of a room. As spectacle, it’s rubbish.
It is while Hillary is explaining this to the woman he still believes to be Felice Norcroft that she, Felice Strange, shows him the date on the newspaper. My Lord, it’s 1922, more than a century since he was on that boat. So Felice Norcroft and everyone he knew is dead. And there’s an explanation for all the horseless carriages and electric lights and everything else that apparently was invented while he was in the Arctic.
Now, adding to the complications is the disappearance of Dr Crawford Strange, Felice’s father. He set off on the expedition with Sinclair and Duval but turned back when a message reached him that Felice was ill. But Felice has not been ill and sent no such message. So what happened and where is he? I’m sure it has nothing to do with that conniving rascal Trent next door, or the cellar where, we are told, he conducts experiments on animals (something that has no bearing on anything and is never mentioned again).
Trent endeavours to have Hillary imprisoned by introducing Duval to a femme fatale, Marie Le Grande (Nita Naldi, a genuine screen star best known to genre fans for her role opposite John Barrymore in the 1920 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) who persuades the ‘half-breed’ to claim that Hillary murdered Strange. The ‘man from beyond’ is marched off to prison; could another perilous escape be on the cards? Sadly no, because on the way there he successfully persuades Duval to admit to lying, whereupon the guards let Hillary go and march Duval off towards the State Pen.
Hillary and Sinclair investigate Trent’s house (for some reason) and spot a rat at the foot of the stairs with a scrap of cloth tied to its leg. On inspection (it’s a remarkably tame and hygienic rat) this proves to bear the embroidered initials ‘CS’ which they deduce to mean Crawford Strange. Examining where the rat came from, they find that the stairs are actually a cover which can be lifted up, and underneath them is a flight of stairs down to a hidden cellar. And in this cellar they find a barrel which is actually a fake barrel concealing a doorway to a low tunnel. Boy, whatever is down here certainly needs to be kept hidden. Lo and behold, it’s Dr Crawford Strange who has been imprisoned under Trent’s house for three years but finally decided to rip his shirt pocket off and tie it round a (tame, hygienic) rat’s leg shortly before his newly returned neighbour and a friend broke into the house.
Last time Trent was down there, Crawford refused to sign over his property so Trent declared that he would get his grubby mitts on half of it anyway by forcibly marrying Felice. Hillary races to wherever it is that Trent has taken the young lady and has a fight with him atop some high rocks while Felice runs alongside the river, chased by Trent’s servant. Having disposed of Trent, Hillary also runs along the riverbank but Felice, to escape, has climbed into a canoe and paddled off into the river. Alas, this just happens to be slightly upstream of Niagara Falls. I don’t know which is worse: the arbitrary convenience of the canoe or the utter irresponsibility of leaving such a thing lying around a few hundred yards from the most dangerous waterfall in the world.
Hillary bravely leaps into the water, swims through the rapids, climbs into the canoe then climbs out again bringing Felice with him and they cling to a rock while the canoe tumbles over the falls. How they then get back to the bank is not shown. An epilogue sees Felice, whom we have discovered is the great-great-niece of the original Felice, admitting to the possibility of reincarnation as she talks with Hillary while her father and uncle look on admiringly. A close-up shows us that Hillary is reading a copy of Spiritualism and Rationalism, a 1920 non-fiction book by notorious spiritualist dupe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
And so they all live happily ever after, but what a rubbish film. The reason you have probably never heard of this and almost certainly never seen it is simply because it’s crap. The story makes little sense but worse than that it is entirely devoid of thrills, tension and excitement - which are the sort of things that you associate with Harry Houdini and probably what people associated with him in 1922.
Houdini’s film career is a little-documented aspect of his weird life. According to Wikipedia (the online equivalent of a man in a pub, but you have to start somewhere), he first appeared on screen in 1901 in Merveilleux Exploits du Celebre Houdini a Paris but that’s awfully early in cinematic history. Any such film would have been about three minutes long and quite probably didn’t star Houdini but just someone pretending to be him. In 1916 he was allegedly a ‘technical consultant’ on the now-lost serial The Mysteries of Myra, in which the villains are adept in black magic but there is, as far as I can tell, absolutely no evidence for this rumour whatsoever. Nor do I give any credence to the wiki-claim that he was offered the role of Nemo in the 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Houdini was not an actor and that is just hogwash.
Houdini made, it is generally accepted, five films. The Inaccurate Movie Database (and various websites deriving their information from same) lists a sixth, a 1921 picture called The Soul of Bronze which Houdini allegedly starred in and directed. Of the five proven Houdini movies, the first was a 15-chapter serial, The Master Mystery, in which Houdini’s character did not have the initials HH (he’s called Quentin Locke). He played a sort of pre-FBI man investigating a bunch of crooks who have a large robot at their beck and call. This at least sounds like fun because you can’t go wrong with a robot, however goofy it may be. Burton L King and Harry Grossman shared directorial duties.
He followed this with two features for Famous Players-Lasky. In The Grim Game (1919) he played a man wrongly imprisoned for murder who uses his amazing escape skills to, well, escape. It was directed by Irvin Willat and the cast included Augustus Phillips (who played the title role in the 1910 Frankenstein) and regular Laurel and Hardy co-star Mae Busch. The second feature was Terror Island, set in the South Seas and directed by James Cruze. There is no reason to suppose that either of these films is any more thrilling than The Man from Beyond.
Unhappy with working for The Man, Houdini set up his own film company which made made this tedium and a final feature, Haldane of the Secret Service, which Houdini actually directed himself. Since he was a fairly wooden actor and a hopeless scenario-writer, we can safely presume that he was also a rotten director. What I have read about Houdini indicates that he was frustrated as a magician because all that anyone wanted to see was his escapology - and the reason they didn’t want to see his magic was that, although technically proficient, he lacked the showmanship that a great magician needs to ‘sell’ his tricks to the punters. And I think that lack of showmanship is evident here.
The Man from Beyond exhibits competent, workmanlike direction by Burton L King, who had directed most of the episodes of The Master Mystery. But the scenario, adapted by Coolidge Street from Houdini’s own story, combines an unexciting plot with deus ex machina developments. Most astoundingly of all it completely and utterly fails to explore the man-out-of-time possibilities of the basic premise. The fact that Howard Hillary was frozen in ice for one hundred years is totally irrelevant to the main story.
This is the only one of Houdini’s films which is readily available. The British VHS was released in 1993 by an outfit called VRI on their ‘Golden Age Films’ label (which also released Murnau’s Faust and a few other titles). The music, which was composed and performed by Andrew Youdell, an experienced British accompanist to silent films, is not memorable but at least it was specially written so it doesn’t jar with the images. The film is now available on DVD from Alpha; I don’t know what their soundtrack is like.
However, there seems to be some serious debate about the movie’s running time. This tape’s sleeve claims 80 minutes but the film actually runs 60 minutes and appears to be projected at the correct speed. The website of the Houdini Museum describes this as a 90-minute film. The IMDB, for what it’s worth, says 74 minutes. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. The film is just boring and a longer version is just more boredom.
Finally, it is worth noting that although Houdini is the subject of a 2005 graphic novel entitled The Man from Beyond, that has no connection with this film.
MJS rating: C-
review originally posted 10th March 2007