Monday, September 10, 2012


BLACK MAGIC (1949- U.S./Italy)

D: Gregory Ratoff.  Orson Welles is Count Cagliostro, the infamous magician and freemason in this lush, stylized historical tale of intrigue.  Welles is great and suitably over-the-top as the historical Cagliostro, supposedly the real life Giuseppe Basalmo (though nobody knows for sure) - a charlatan, con man, alchemist, mentalist and hypnotist.  Although highly fictionalized, the story moves at a swift pace and the black and white imagery is often times stellar enough to be mistaken for Wellsian cinema.  The usual rumors persist that Welles did, in fact, direct most of the film.

The film opens with novelist Alexandre Dumas sitting down with paper and pen about to spin the tale of Cagliostro in the presence of his inquisitive son, Alexandre Jr. (Raymond Burr).  Dumas penned the thousand-plus-page Cagliostro epic Joseph Basalmo (1846-8) and the character appeared in several of his novels.

Dumas picks up when Cagliostro’s gypsy mom is executed as a witch by an evil viscount (Stephen Bekassy).  Young Alessandro inherits his mom’s svengali-like gift and proceeds to profit off it and seek revenge. Years later, the suave Count Cagliostro gets sucked into the infamous Affair of the Diamond Necklace involving Marie Antoinette and a look-a-like (both played by Nancy Guild of ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN) by the very man he has been hunting, the slimy viscount who executed his mother!

Unlike the film’s heroic, swashbuckling ending, the real Cagliostro (1743-1795) was sentenced to death (later amended to life) for the charge of freemasonry and languished and died in a Vatican jail.
The film’s fictionalized plot fuses elements from Dumas' THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK and du Maurier's TRILBY as well as dishing up court room drama, doomed romance, revenge, royal intrigue and premature burial; all served up in grand style and visualized with stunning expressionistic photography, hundreds of extras and elaborate costumes and sets.
Shot in studios and locations around Rome with a mostly Italian tech crew, the film glosses over Cagliostro’s controversial link to Freemasonry and his creation of the Egyptian Rites (the subject of a recent book) but Welles does sport the cryptic square and compass symbol in one or two scenes.
 A stand-out supporting player is Welles’ favorite Akim Tamiroff as Cagliostro’s trollish henchman.  Of course, Tamiroff was wildly memorable in Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL, THE TRIAL (1962 and DON QUIXOTE (1958).  Tamiroff also worked with Welles collaborator Jess Franco in JUSTINE (aka DEADLY SANCTUARY/1969).
 Actor/Director Ratoff directed around 30 films including THE CORSICAN BROTHERS (1941).  Supposedly, veteran cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (worked with Fellini, Leone & others!) was an uncredited camera operator.
 Boris Karloff was originally announced to play the Count in a never realized Universal Picture in the 30’s that supposedly morphed into 1932’s THE MUMMY. Other actors to play the role include Jean Marais, Howard Vernon, Henry Daniell, Nicol Williamson and Christopher Walken, to name a few!
A fascinating, truly multi-faceted man of mystery, Cagliostro has always been and remains the subject of non-fictional/fictional books, plays, music, movies, comic books, etc.  Cagliostro would have been a fitting character for inclusion in Welles’ mind-bending F IS FOR FAKE (1975), a twisted tribute to cons and con men, .  Welles was a serious magician in real life and as in 'F,' he gets to show off some of his sleight of hand skills here including the classic "Miser's Dream."

A difficult film to track down, BLACK MAGIC was originally available on Beta and VHS tape on the Nostalgia Merchant and Midnight Video labels.  It can sometimes be snagged during one of its rare airings on Turner Classic Movies.  Without question, BLACK MAGIC deserves a legit U.S.  DVD/BD release.  It is available on DVD as CAGLIOSTRO in Spain and Italy.

The real life Count Cagliostro!

(Reviewed from a nice bittorrent download, as evidenced from the frame grabs, from an unknown video source.)

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