Saturday, November 11, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #11: the Magus

THE MAGUS (1968) Cast: Michael Caine (Nicholas Urfe), Anthony Quinn (Maurice Conchis), Candice Bergen (Lily), Anna Karina (Anne), Paul Stassino (Meli), Julian Glover (Anton), Takis Emmanuel (Kapetan), George Pastell (Andreas-Priest), Daniele Noel (Soula), Jerome Willis (“False” German Officer), Ethel Farrugia (Maria).
Crew: Guy Green (director), John Kohn and Jud Kinberg (producers), John Fowles (writer), John Dankworth (music), Billy Williams (cinematography), Max Benedict (editor), Don Ashton (production designer).

Synopsis: Nicholas Urfe leaves England to escape a failed romance with Anne, an air hostess. He becomes a teacher on the Greek island of Phraxos. Nicholas encounters a mysterious local, Maurice Conchis, who puts the teacher through a series of tests, tricks and illusions. Conchis was thought to have died during the war. Anne visits Nicholas on the island and they make love, but he refuses to take their affair any further. Soon after he is sent a newspaper report about Anne has committing suicide. Nicholas finds himself in a recreation of an incident from the war, when the Germans occupied Phraxos. Conchis reveals he was made mayor of the island by the Nazis. When three Greek partisans from the mainland murdered four Germans on Phraxos, Conchis was given a stark choice – kill the partisans himself or see 80 local men murdered in cold blood. Conchis could not choose and the Germans killed everyone – except the mayor. Conchis staged his own death to escape the shame of what had happened. Just when Nicholas thinks he understands, Conchis forces him to experience yet another hallucination. Finally, Nicholas sees Anne, still alive. His journey of discovery is over…

British writer John Fowles’ chilling novel The Collector was made into a well regarded film in 1965, collecting several Oscar nominations. Caine had known one of the producers, John Kohn, for several years. ‘When I saw The Collector, I knew I wanted to do John Fowles’ next novel,’ the actor told Films and Filming in 1969. ‘That was before he had even written it. John Kohn and Jud Kinberg had the option on it, and I said, “I’ll do that no matter what it is” as part of my Fox contract.’ Caine had signed a non-exclusive two-picture deal with Hollywood studio Twentieth Century Fox. The first half was fulfilled by the poorly received Deadfall (1968). The Magus became the second picture in the deal. ‘When I read the book I was absolutely fascinated by it,’ Caine told Films and Filming. ‘It’s a very personal thing and I suppose The Magus can really be taken by each individual for what it means to them.’

Director Guy Green grabbed the opportunity to make the film when offered it by Kohn. ‘One seldom gets offered anything that one is really fascinated in…,’ he told Films and Filming. ‘Most films fit into the major categories like Westerns, spy stories, comedies … The Magus seems to be outside these customary limits; it is unusual, a different kind of picture.’ Green worked with Fowles to adapt the novel into a workable screenplay. ‘He was better for the job than anyone else, but being a first script it wasn’t easy to shoot what he wrote. It isn’t a routine straightforward plot, but one that is built up out of impressions; in fact, the kind of story that only the cinema can really tell.’

The production started shooting in Greece but political unrest forced the unit to shift to Spain. Scenes were also filmed on location in England. Fowles made a brief cameo appearance as a sailor in the picture’s opening sequence. In his 1992 autobiography What’s It All About?, Caine confessed he could not understand the script and admitted he had never finished reading Fowles’ novel. The actor also found it hard to cope with the entourage surrounding his co-star, Anthony Quinn.

The film was released late in 1968, rated X in the UK. Reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic slated The Magus, with Green and Fowles taking the brunt of criticism for failing to translate the novel’s magical essence on to celluloid. Billy Williams did receive a BAFTA nomination for his cinematography. The Magus was a box office flop and has never been released on video or DVD. {Update: it was released on Region 1 DVD in Octoner 2006/] Caine talked about the film in an interview with Time Out in 2000: ‘That was a contract picture for Fox so I had to do it. I didn’t know what it was about. Nobody knew what it was about. Still, it was nice filming in Majorca…’

American filmmaker Woody Allen was once asked what he would change if he could live his life over again. He is reputed to have said he would do everything exactly the same – except he wouldn’t see The Magus.

Reviews: ‘Both acting and direction are competent enough in an uninspired, workmanlike way, but this doesn’t prevent the film from being faintly ludicrous some of the time and painfully unexciting all of the time.’ – MFB
‘This may not be the most misguided movie ever mad, but it’s in there pitching.’ – US critic Rex Reed

Verdict: The Magus is like watching paint dry while being whipped with barbed wire – slow, boring and excruciatingly painful at the same time. Some novels should never be converted into movies, simply because the internal nature of the narrative defies easy adaptation into the predominantly externalised style of cinema. Green’s direction is flat, lifeless and pretentious, while attempts to inject fantasy sequences into a realistically shot film are laughable. The actors stumble through the production, with Caine plainly baffled by all that he beholds. Only once does The Magus come close to bringing alive the essence of Fowles’ novel, in the flashback sequence when Conchis faces his terrible dilemma with the Nazis. The rest of the time this film is just terrible - strictly for cinematic masochists.

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