BLACK MAGIC(directors: Gregory Ratoff/Orson Welles; screenwriter: Charles Bennett/from the Alexandre Dumas’ account of Cagliostro from “Memoirs of a Physician”; cinematographers: Ubaldo Arata/Anchise Brizzi; editor: Fred R. Feitshans Jr./James C. McKay; music: Paul Sawtell; cast: Orson Welles (Joseph Balsamo aka Count Cagliostro), Nancy Guild (Marie Antoinette/Lorenza), Akim Tamiroff (Gitano), Stephen Bekassy (Viscount de Montagne), Valentina Cortese (Zoraida), Frank Latimore (Gilbert de Rezel), Raymond Burr (Alexandre Dumas, Jr.), Berry Kroeger (Alexandre Dumas, Sr.), Charles Goldner (Dr. Mesmer), Lee Kresel (King Louis XVI), Robert Atkins (King Louis XV), Margot Grahame (Mme. du Barry), Annielo Mele (Joseph Balsamo, as a child); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Gregory Ratoff; United Artists; 1949)
“It’s hard to believe an Orson Welles movie could be so crass.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Though Gregory Ratoff (“The Corsican Brothers”) is listed as sole director, Orson Welles (“Citizen Kane”/”Touch of Evil”/”Arkadin”) directed most of it uncredited. This is a delirious biopic of Cagliostro, the 18th century mountebank, a notorious power hungry charlatan who is a cross between Svengali and Rasputin. It’s hard to believe an Orson Welles movie could be so crass. An excruciating gaudy and campy film that is devoid of humor or cinematic logic, while high on hysterics, overacting and cliched black magic of the crudest kind. Writer Charles Bennett bases it on Alexander Dumas’ account of Cagilostro from “Memoirs of a Physician.” There are many embarrassing scenes, but the courtroom scene of dueling hypnotists, Dr. Mesmer (Charles Goldner) versus Cagliostro (Orson Welles), has to go down as one so humiliating, you would think Welles would have destroyed the print. Though some might argue the scene in the court of the French King Louis XV, where Cagliostro is curing a group of cripples then afflicting them has to be as low and vile as you could sink in a burlesque routine. If the story wasn’t hokey enough, the bad acting by all, including Welles, made this a film one can only like because it was so overbaked in absurdity that it unwittingly induced laughter (which may or may not have been intentional).
It opens with the famous French author Alexandre Dumas, Sr. telling his son how obsessed he’s with the story of the 18th century black magician Cagliostro, and then goes into flashback to tell his story. Cagliostro as a gypsy child in southern France was named Joseph Balsamo (Annielo Mele); he never recovered his bitterness for people in high places after he was forced to watch his beloved clairvoyant mother and gypsy father hang by order of the sadisticCount DeMontagne (Stephen Bekassy), who also ordered the boy to be whipped and his eyes put out after watching his parents hang. But a band of gypsies, led by Gitano (Akim Tamiroff), rescue him before the guard can sear his eyes with a hot poker. It picks up with Joseph (Orson Welles) as a young man in Vienna, who takes the medicine show name of the Great Balsamo and sells fake elixir drinks at carnivals. Dr. Mesmer catches his act and confers with him after Joseph saves through hypnosis a patron’s life who drank lighting fluid by mistake. The research scientist tells the gypsy con artist about the work he’s doing in the unknown field of hypnotism, something Joseph does naturally. After Joseph performs a miracle by using hypnosis to cure an elderly rich baron from palsy (a scene which looked like one of those phony evangelical healing sessions), who willingly pays handsomely for the cure, Joseph changes his name to Cagliostro–“the name of the swiftest comet in the night sky” and sets out to use his gifts for personal wealth and power instead of helping humanity. Travelling through Europe with Gitano and his lover Zoraida (Valentina Cortese), his fame as a healer grows. Driven to revenge his parents death by catching up with Count DeMontagne, the healer returns to France. Soon as he arrives he meets DeMontagne, who summons the healer to examine Lorenza (Nancy Guild), a beautiful young woman suffering from shock. He put her under hypnosis and Lorenza, who bears a striking resemblance to Princess Marie Antoinette, reveals she was kidnapped while in Strasbourg and being courted by a dashing young officer in the royal guards named Gilbert (Frank Latimore). It turns out DeMontagne with the help of the king’s mistress Mme. du Barry (Margot Grahame) did the kidnapping to use her as a double to embarrass the new queen in order to dethrone her and now scheme with Cagliostro to keep Lorenza under his possessive powers until they fully carry through the scheme.
Through an overcomplicated and unbelievable plot line, Cagliostro possess Lorenza by using his hypnotic powers and plans to use her as a double for the unpopular Austrian Queen Marie Antoinette and thereby secure for himself the French throne while also exacting revenge on DeMontagne. He doesn’t pull off the Marie Antoinette part, as at least the film didn’t try to go against history with all the fact and fancy it tosses around, as it has Cagliostro get deluded with his power and turn into a raving maniac who becomes blind to where his reckless ambition is leading him. It was painful watching how all this nonsense was carried out without the Three Stooges around to help. When it wasn’t senselessly amusing, it was just brutal.REVIEWED ON 7/15/2008 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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