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Houdini - Advance Preview: “One Way or Another, We All Want to Escape”

This Labor Day weekend the History Channel will be airing a two part mini-series chronicling the life of Harry Houdini. Based on the book Harry Houdini: a Psychoanalytic Portrait by Dr. Bernard C. Meyer, this mini-series is devoted to the rise and fall of the famous escape artist, focusing more on Houdini himself and his reactions to fame, heartbreak, and family. It asks the viewers to consider what goes through the mind of a man who chooses to defy death for a living.

Adrian Brody portrays the titular Houdini to great effect. His performance was one of my favorite things about this mini-series. Houdini follows Brody’s character from the early days of his act, through the magician’s heyday of escaping from water barrels and diving into icy waters, and finally to his later years debunking mediums and spiritualists. How Brody shows Harry Houdini growing and changing from each experience, each near miss or personal trial, is fantastic to watch. He plays Houdini as cocky, but not unlikable. You would normally want to see someone with Houdini’s attitude fail, to see him trip up and be humbled, And yet I found myself rooting for the escape artist every step of the way, even when the personal choices he made were morally grey or worse.

And speaking of escapes, the best, in my opinion, part of the mini-series has to be Part One’s focus on Houdini’s illusions. Part The Prestige, part CSI:, with just a dash of Now You See Me, each performance had me at the edge of my seat, tense to see if this trick would be the last one, if this was the moment Houdini would be foiled by ropes and chains. The cinematography in Part One is very stylized, utilizing shots of the mechanisms inside of locks or diving into the physiology of Houdini himself to show how such feats could be accomplished. And yes readers, for the most part the mini-series will satisfy your curiosity as to “how he did it”.

As exciting as the flash and daring of Part One is, Part Two takes a more somber, melancholy tone. We see Houdini in his later years, years he devoted to debunking the idea of life after death. There is a sense of foreboding in Part Two, so much so that I found it less enjoyable than Part One. It’s almost as if the entire mini-series is a magic act in itself. The first portion is the flash and bang surrounding the trick, the part that hides the true nature of the second portion which is the quiet simplicity of the truth behind all the smoke and mirrors.

One fault I find with Houdini, and perhaps this has to do with the source material and its focus on Harry Houdini’s psychology, is that much of Houdini’s childhood and motivations are implied, not shown. We get insight to the magician’s relationship with his family, particularly his mother, but nothing is delved into deeply. We hardly see any of the magician’s childhood. I felt as if I should have done some homework to prepare for Houdini. This is a shame since the magician’s relationship with his mother plays a huge role throughout his life, particularly emphasized in Part Two. This may seem as a bonus to some of the audience as the focus is placed more on Houdini’s skills, tricks, and his drive to find the next escape, but I found myself yearning to know more about these familial relationships.

The cinematography, as I said before, is stunning. Locations are richly detailed and feel very vast, larger than life, just like the magician himself. The smaller details, such as the costumes and props, were also visually appealing. I especially enjoyed one detail in particular, that many of the famous posters of Harry Houdini were altered to reflect Adrian Brody’s appearance. Details like that drew me further into the history of this escape artist. There is also a running idea of a “punch to the gut”. I won’t say too much, but I enjoyed how this was woven into the story.

On the whole, I’d say tune in for this mini-series, especially if you have any interest in Harry Houdini or stage magic in general. I found the first part of Houdini to be a fun ride, entertaining and flashy, just like a magic show. The second part wound down a little too slow for me, however it showed the stark realities of what it means to be eternally searching for escape.

Houdini premieres September 1st, 9/8c on the History Channel.

About the Author – Ashley B
Ashley is as serious as a sleeping curse when she says television is her life. Professional event planner, avid movie viewer, convention enthusiast, and resident sass master, Ashley writes reviews for ABC's Once Upon a Time, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, and Galavant, as well as Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. She looks forward each week to the weird and wonderful world her favorite television programs provide.
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