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The Magic Christian(1969)
Sir Guy Grand, the richest man in the world, adopts a homeless boy, Youngman. Together, they set out to prove that anyone--and anything--can be bought with money.
For more about The Magic Christian and the The Magic Christian Blu-ray release, see the The Magic Christian Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on May 31, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, Isabel Jeans, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Richard Attenborough, Leonard Frey
Director: Joseph McGrath
» See full cast & crew
The Magic Christian Blu-ray Review
Not quite magic enough.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, May 31, 2013
Considering the handful or so of iconic films to which he contributed over the years, Terry Southern is a curiously unrecognized name, even by some who consider themselves relatively well schooled in film history. Southern was at the forefront of a new, more acerbic, generation of writers who came up through the ranks in the 1950s and 1960s. Southern was hired by Stanley Kubrick to help rewrite Dr. Strangelove, a short term assignment that nonetheless catapulted Southern into one of the more recognized names in the world of screenwriting, despite Kubrick's insistence that Southern had not contributed that much to the final product. Southern evidently contributed in some way to an unlikely follow up property, William Wyler's only foray into horror-thriller territory, 1965's The Collector, before moving on to two incredibly disparate films, the delicious (if somewhat perverse) black comedy The Loved One and the film many confuse with The Hustler, The Cincinnati Kid. A couple of more uncredited work for hire jobs ensued (including the disastrous 1967 version of Casino Royale), as well as Southern's soft porn novel reworking of Candide, now called Candy, which was filmed in 1968 to a screenplay by another master of black comedy, Buck Henry. 1968 also saw Southern's adaptive treatment of Barbarella make it to the silver screen. And then in 1969 Southern wrote a "little" film that set the entire film industry on its ear and helped to usher in a decade of independent productions that helped advance the death knell the major studios were already experiencing. That film? Easy Rider. At this point in his career, Southern probably could have done anything he damn well pleased, which may explain, at least in part, the somewhat inchoate mess that is Southern's "other" 1969 film, The Magic Christian. Southern had actually written the novel of The Magic Christian in 1959, and legend has it that it was a gift of that novel from Peter Sellers to Stanley Kubrick which encouraged the director to hire the author to work on Strangelove. The ensuing decade between the novel's debut and the film version was one of considerable sociopolitical upheaval, changes that might seem on their surface to play extremely well into Southern's bristling desconstruction of the capitalist ethic. But the very independent spirit which was so much a part of Southern's Easy Rider often works against The Magic Christian, a film that is often fascinating but rarely as funny as it really should be.
One of the things that helped sink the 1967 Casino Royale was the fact that it had so many writers and directors, often seemingly working at cross purposes with each other. The Magic Christian shares some of the same problems, although in this case only the writing staff was numerous, while the film had one director, Joseph McGrath, who probably not so coincidentally was one of the segment directors of Casino Royale. The film version of The Magic Christian parts in at least one important way from Southern's source novel, by introducing a new character, Youngman Grand (Ringo Starr), a homeless youth who is rather inexplicably adopted by billionaire Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) in the film's first post-credits sequence. But then again, so much of The Magic Christian is inexplicable that it's probably slightly churlish to pick nits like this, since what is obvious is that the filmmakers wanted some "youth appeal", and who better to provide it than one of the members of the most popular band of that era?
Again, much like the 1967 Casino Royale, The Magic Christian is incredibly episodic, lurching from anecdote to anecdote as it explores the Grand duo's attempts to undermine cultural morés, especially as defined by the upper crust citizenry of England. Sir Guy is an obvious born provocateur, one teaching the tricks of the trade to his newfound "son". That turns the film into a sequence of guest shots for various actors. Some of these—perhaps most of these—are patently bizarre, as in a bit featuring Laurence Harvey doing Hamlet's famous soliloquy as a burlesque strip number. Other bits, including a cameo by John Cleese (who contributed material with his soon to be Monty Python partner Graham Chapman, who also appears uncredited) as an unctuous Sotheby's auction house director, are at least relatively more successful. (There's one scene in a restaurant with Sellers that plays at least a little like a precursor to a very famous scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, so I'm assuming this is one of the Cleese-Chapman contributions to the often ungainly script.)
The bulk of the star cameos unfold in the lunatic closing sequence of the film, aboard the S.S. Magic Christian, which Sir Guy and Youngman have requisitioned for what is supposed to be a cruise only for the most well appointed. What actually plays out is closer to a psychedelic explosion of weird little bits that include Racquel Welch as a whip bearing dominatrix in a galley full of naked female rowers, Wilfrid Hyde White as a befuddled captain, Christopher Lee as a vampire, Leonard Frey as an analyst (named Faggot, and, no, I'm not joking), and Roman Polanski as a bar patron. There's a "surprise" cameo by a chanteuse warbling Noel Coward's "Mad About the Boy" to Polanski that has to be seen to be believed.
The Magic Christian has some fun bits tucked within it, but it's a film that often feels like it's trying too hard, often to little avail. There's some interesting social criticism in this film (best exemplified by the final scene, which has hoity-toity Brits climbing through a vat of human waste to retrieve "free money"), but it's often buried beneath too much razzmatazz and general confusion to ever really have much impact. The film is still weirdly enjoyable, at least in dribs and drabs, and it also contains a nice song score that features several tunes by Badfinger, the then recent Apple discoveries who shot to fame based on Paul McCartney's "Come and Get It", which is the film's main theme.
The Magic Christian Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Magic Christian is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1. This is generally one of the nicer looking recent glut of sixties and seventies releases from Olive, though it has a couple of anomalies along the way. Colors are fairly accurate looking, though once again may have faded, if only slightly. Fine detail is quite good in the film's many (sometimes bizarre) close-ups. There are a couple of moments of mosquito noise which are a bit peculiar. The worst of these is early in the film when Guy and Youngman land in their helicopter, when the gray sky is littered with it. Otherwise, though, aside from the requisite minor scratches and other slight damage, this is a very nice looking high definition presentation.
The Magic Christian Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Magic Christian's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track suffices reasonably well, though some may wish they had been able to hear the Badfinger (and other band) tunes in a wider sonic setting. Dialogue is quite crisply rendered and the score also sounds fine (regular Beatles collaborator Ken Thorne provided the underscore).
The Magic Christian Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
No supplements are offered on this Blu-ray disc.
The Magic Christian Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Magic Christian is a lot like the late sixties themselves—unbridled, chaotic, probably high on drugs and more or less completely unkempt. As a time capsule, it's invaluable. As a film, it's a hit or miss affair at best. There are some scattered laughs to be had here and there, but the film is simply too manic for its own good most of the time. Some of the cameos are so bizarre that they probably "need" to be seen at least once in any discerning filmgoer's experience, but my hunch is anyone thinking this is going to have the general hilarity of either some of Southern's other works or (especially) the Monty Python outings will be at least somewhat disappointed. Still, for curiosity sake alone, The Magic Christian comes Recommended.
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