Since the dawn of cinema, movies and magic have gone hand in hand. One of film’s most important pioneers, Georges Melies, was even a stage illusionist before discovering motion pictures. And the profession of magician has been a focus for great movies ever since by the likes of Christopher Nolan, Ingmar Bergman, Jacques Tati, and Sir Richard Attenborough.
We’ve selected 14 of our favorite magic-makers in film below.
The Great Danton and the Professor in ‘The Prestige’
Before the magician rivalries of “Burt Wonderstone” there were these two acts in Christopher Nolan’s twisty period piece, both competing with variations of a special trick called the Transported Man. Danton (Hugh Jackman) and the Professor (Christian Bale) were once friends, but now they try to better one another, often through sabotage.
Eisenheim the Illusionist in ‘The Illusionist’ (2006)
The other competing magician film from 2006, Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist,” stars Edward Norton as the titular stage performer. He too has a rival, though a romantic one rather than professional. And while his story also involves death, his tricks are more about rebirth, whether he’s making a lemon tree grow from a seed or resurrecting a loved one’s ghost.
Tatischeff in ‘The Illusionist’ (2010)
Based on an unproduced script by Jacques Tati, the second animated feature from Sylvain Chomet, which was nominated for an Oscar, centers around an aging magician trying to stay afloat while his trade dwindles in popularity. He meets up with a young girl who believes in his talent so much that she thinks he legitimately has magic powers.
Presto in ‘Presto’
Another Oscar-nominated animated film, “Presto” is a short subject from Pixar, which screened before “Wall-E.” Here a stage magician’s act is mostly benefited by his possession of two hats that are apparently linked through some sort of supernatural portal. The problem is he also needs a cooperative rabbit for this portal stunt to work, and the one in his employment is more of a trickster than a trick helper.
The Amazing Larry in ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’
In the final cut of Tim Burton’s feature directorial debut, the Amazing Larry (Lou Cutell) is only seen during the meeting in the basement of the bike shop, getting scolded by Pee-Wee for talking. But a deleted scene from the film shows an earlier appearance in Mario’s magic shop showing off his levitating toupee trick. Pee-Wee convinces him to try and rework the bit by getting the punk hairdo we see him with.
Corky (and Fats) in ‘Magic’
Anthony Hopkins plays a magician who initially just works with cheap card tricks in Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1978 horror film. One of his specialties is a two-deck bit he uses to seduce women, including an old friend played by Ann Margaret. While unsuccessful on his own, he finds great success when he combines his magic with a ventriloquism routine.
Gallico the Great in ‘The Mad Magician’
Stage magic tricks aren’t supposed to be dangerous, they’re just supposed to look that way. But Gallico, played by horror star Vincent Price in this 3D film, designs his effects in ways that wind up helping him achieve success... through murder. One of his gimmicks, the “Crematorium,” winds up killing a rival magician who tries to steal it, which sounds rather appropriate.
The Great Buck Howard in ‘The Great Buck Howard’
John Malkovich plays the eponymous character loosely based on real-life mentalist and talk show staple the Amazing Kreskin. The Great Buck Howard’s signature bit, involving his ability to find his own payment which has been hidden by an audience member, is something Kreskin did. To regain his celebrity status and be relevant again, he goes for a new trick where he puts his audience to sleep, which doesn’t sound like something an entertainer wants to do.
Albert Vogler in ‘The Magician’ (1958)
In Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film, Max Von Sydow plays the title character, a corrupt traveling illusionist in the mid-19th century whose main event involves “animal magnetism.” Eventually it gets around that he’s a fraud and a crook and must prove his professionalism to authorities investigating him in Stockholm.
The Great Splendini in ‘Scoop’
Splendini is the most cliche stage magician around, a hack who utilizes all the basics acquired by any kid in the purchase of a cheap magic set. But he’s played (and written and directed) by Woody Allen. Who wouldn’t go see Woody perform easy and obvious illusions like pulling a bouquet out of a box?
Orson Welles in ‘Follow the Boys’
Part of a musical variety film made to entertain troops during World War II, Welles appears in “Follow the Boys” as one of the many, many guest stars along with Marlene Dietrich as his assistant. They play themselves, with Welles as a magician whose trick is to slice the actress in half (“we lose a girl every night,” he says). His gag in which he lights a cigar on a light bulb is even better. For his grand finale, he accidentally hypnotizes himself.
Le Chiffre in ‘Casino Royale’ (1967)
It’s Welles again (Woody Allen is here too). Taking on the role of James Bond villain Le Chiffre, it was the “Citizen Kane” director’s idea to have the character perform magic, something you wouldn’t expect a gambling establishment to permit at its card tables. In one notable distraction he levitates a woman and makes her disappear. He also has a neat card trick, which is just him cheating with special glasses allowing him to see other players’ hands.
The Great Houdini in ‘Houdini’
Of course we must include one of the greatest real-life magicians of all time, Harry Houdini. The legendary escape artist actually appeared in his own films and directed some, too. As a character, he’s been portrayed on numerous occasions in TV and film. The most memorable Houdini in cinema, however, was played by Tony Curtis, who reenacted thrilling stunts like the escapes from straightjackets and submerged locked crates.
The Magician in ‘The Vanishing Lady’
Finally, we have to recognize one of Georges Melies films. The magician-turned-filmmaker made a plenty of movies involving a wizard or stage magician performing illusions, though they tended to be camera tricks that he couldn’t have done live in the theater. Take “The Vanishing Lady” (aka “The Conjuring of a Woman at the House of Robert Houdin”) for instance, where you clearly see the cut in the film allowing for the lady to seemingly vanish. Melies himself plays the magician here and in other similar works.