Perhaps the greatest stunt Erich Weiss ever pulled off was that nearly 90 years after his death, his stage name, Houdini, is still the virtual definition for “the greatest escape artist of all time.”
Harry Houdini escaped death time and time again, only to die of peritonitis and a ruptured appendix at 52 in 1926. But he lives again in a two-night, four-hour biopic on the History Channel, airing Monday and Tuesday, with Adrien Brody (“The Pianist”) in the title role.
The film follows Weiss/Houdini from his birth in Budapest, to his relocation with parents and brothers to the United States, where his father became the rabbi of a Jewish congregation in Wisconsin but was essentially fired, according to the film, because he couldn’t speak English.
Already fascinated by magic to the point of obsession, young Erich (Louis Mertens) begins performing rudimentary tricks on street corners and earning money from passersby, which he brings home to his adored mother (Eszter Ãnodi, “Valami America”).
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From the outset, “Houdini” takes pains to explain how every illusion and escape works. Although Houdini’s audience may have suspended disbelief, Houdini is insistent that he does not perform actual magic — it’s all just trickery. Nonetheless, that doesn’t detract from our understanding of how skillfully Houdini was able to hold his audience spellbound. Even if he was able to secret tiny tools into the famous Chinese Water Torture trick, his life was legitimately on the line if he wasn’t able to escape quickly enough.
The film, written by Nicholas Meyer (“The Informant”) and directed by Uli Edel (“The Mists of Avalon”), repeatedly suggests psychological forces prompted Houdini to keep pushing himself toward more and more dangerous tricks, without really offering much of a reason why. Houdini is equally driven in his personal life as well, however. Despite his marriage and professional partnership to former showgirl Bess Rahner (Kristen Connolly, “House of Cards”), he regularly cheats on her, perhaps not so much for sexual satisfaction but because it’s another form of putting himself in danger.
His career really takes off after he meets Jim Collins (Evan Jones, “Criminal Minds”) who becomes his assistant and, more important, the gifted craftsman and inventor of Houdini’s various devices, including the famous Chinese Water Torture tank.
While the first half of the miniseries focuses primarily on Houdini’s career as an escape artist, the second half explores his crusade to debunk fake spiritualists. In spite of the fact that he always maintained that everything he did onstage was just a trick, the loss of his mother prompted him to at least want to believe in the supernatural, and he became desperate to find some way to contact her in the hereafter.
Brody is quite effective as Houdini, filling in a number of blanks created by a certain predictability of the script. Connolly also turns in a solid performance as the long-suffering and often exasperated Bess.
The filmmakers mostly do an adequate job of sticking to known facts, but can’t help giving in to somewhat hamfisted telegraphing throughout the film. Every time Houdini contracts his abs and dares someone to punch him as hard as possible in the gut, we cut to a shot of Houdini’s stomach muscles contracting in slow motion.
The real Houdini couldn’t escape mortality, but at least Brody, the History Channel’s version of the man, is able to escape some mediocre filmmaking.
WHERE TO WATCH
“Houdini” airs at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on the History Channel.