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The Prestige: The Best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made

July 8, 2012

This post is part of “The Best Hitchcock Movies (That Hitchcock Never Made)” Blogathon, hosted by my friend Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci’s blog Tales of the Easily Distracted and her friend Rebecca Barnes’ blog ClassicBecky’s Brain Food. The Blogathon runs from July 7th to July 13th, 2012.

Early on in Cameron Crowe’s Singles, Steve (Campbell Scott) and his friend Bailey (Jim True-Frost) go to a club to hear Alice in Chains. As the band plays, Steve sees Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) standing in the crowd, and immediately smitten, he heads across the room to stand next to her. Once there, he tells her he and his friend argue about whether or not they should put on an act in front of women they like (Linda’s friend Ruth (Devon Raymond) looks on, bemused), and when he saw her, he had three choices: (a) he could leave her alone, (b) he could come up with an act, or (c) he could just be himself, and he chose (c). Linda responds, “I think that (a) you have an act, and that (b) not having an act is your act.”

I think of that scene when I come across a movie review accusing a film – or, by extension, its director – of being manipulative. All films, when you come right down to it, are manipulative in a way, filtering either the story (if it’s a fiction film) or reality (if it’s a documentary) the way the director wants you to see it. Some are more skillful about it than others, and some are more subtle about it than others, but it’s still manipulation. Moreover, there are some movies, and directors, that make us conscious we’re being manipulated, and yet instead of resenting them, we find ourselves enjoying the experience. Alfred Hitchcock, of course, was a master at this; from The 39 Steps (1935) to Foreign Correspondent (1940) to his remake of  The Man who Knew Too Much (1956) to North by Northwest (1959) to Psycho (1960) – to name but a few of my favorites – Hitchcock’s films at their best took you for a ride, and no matter how you might resist at first, more often than not at the end you were like the kids who come out of Mant in Joe Dante’s movie Matinee exclaiming, “Man, I’ve gotta see this twice!” Of the directors currently working on the same side of the street Hitchcock did, it’s my opinion Christopher Nolan is the best at tapping into this vein. Of course, today, he’s best known for reviving the Batman franchise, but as much as I like those (and am looking forward to his final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, when it comes out), I think his non-Batman films come closest to that Hitchcock spirit; and out of all of those, the one I think does it the best (and, not by coincidence, is my favorite film of his) is his 2006 film The Prestige.

Batman and Wolverine, together for the first time.

Warning: spoilers ahead!

At first glance, The Prestige might not seem a particularly Hitchcockian film. For one thing, it’s set in the world of magic, and while Hitchcock occasionally dabbled in that world in his films – his first big success, The 39 Steps (1935), had its plot turn on a magician named “Mr. Memory” – as well as movies that dealt with events that couldn’t be explained rationally (The Birds (1963)), mostly, his movies followed “real-world” laws, no matter how fanciful the plots were. For another, among many things, The Prestige is a mystery, and while Hitchcock did make films with twists in them, more often than not, he told us the information, and the rest of the movie was us waiting to see when the characters would be able to figure things out (most notably, of course, in Vertigo (1958)). Still, it does involve murder, which Hitchcock returned to time and again, and also, like a magician, Hitchcock would often show you he had nothing up his sleeve while hiding something (supposedly) in plain sight the entire time, and that certainly is Nolan’s method in The Prestige.

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called ‘The Pledge’. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called ‘The Turn’. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige’.”

As John Cutter (Michael Caine), a creator of illusions, speaks these words in voice-over at the beginning of the movie (which Nolan and his brother Jonathan co-wrote, adapting Christopher Priest’s novel), we see two magic tricks performed. One is Cutter making a canary disappear and then reappear, for a young girl we’ll soon find out is named Jess Borden (Samantha Mahurin). The second trick, infinitely more complicated, is Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), a.k.a. “The Great Danton”, performing a trick that, as we find out later, is called “The Transported Man” trick, which seems to involve him standing amidst electric bolts, and then disappearing below the stage. Except he’s trapped in a water tank below stage that he can’t get out of, and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), his rival – and, as it happens, Jess’ father – is arrested for trapping Angier there and causing him to suffocate and drown. Obviously, these scenes (as well as the actual beginning, which is a shot of a field covered with black top hats – the story is set in turn-of-the-century England – while Borden says in voice-over, “Are you watching closely?”) are important to the plot, which will soon kick in, but they’re also indicative of Nolan’s approach, in his films in general and this film in particular. He knows there’s joy and art to razzle-dazzle and special effects if they’re done right – certainly his Batman films and Inception are proof enough of that – but he also knows the value of doing something simply yet powerfully. Gordon Willis, my favorite cinematographer of all time, once said the trick on a movie is to take something that’s often very sophisticated and reduce it to something very simple. Hitchcock knew that, and again, so does Nolan.

After the water tank and Cutter’s speech, Nolan and editor Lee Smith (who has edited all of Nolan’s films starting with Batman Begins) cut to a courtroom, where Borden is being tried for murder and Cutter is testifying about the trick (it’s understood Cutter’s voice-over at the beginning was, in fact, part of his testimony). There’s some back-and-forth between Cutter, the judge and the lawyers on both sides about whether or not Cutter can reveal the secret of the “Transported Man” trick (the MacGuffin of the film, which of course was something else Hitchcock was known for) until finally, Cutter agrees to tell the judge in private the secret of the trick. We then go to the jail where Borden is being held, and another lawyer, Owens (Roger Rees) is visiting Borden. Owens has come on behalf of Lord Caldlow, whom he describes as an amateur magician and magic enthusiast, and he too wants the secret of the Transported Man trick (he actually wants all of Borden’s secrets, but that one most of all). Borden is willing to sell everything except the Transported Man trick, at which point Owens reveals his ultimatum;  if Borden doesn’t sell the trick, he’ll lose custody of his daughter (we saw Borden waving to her in the courtroom, while she was being cared for by a shabby-looking friend of Borden’s whom we’ll learn is named Fallon) and she’ll become a ward of the state. If, on the other hand, Borden does sell the trick, Lord Caldlow will take custody of Jess, and she’ll be well cared for. Not only that, but as a gesture of good faith, Owens gives Borden a diary kept by the late Angier.

From there, we learn the backstory of Angier and Borden’s relationship. Once, they were friendly rivals, both working for a third-rate magician named Milton (Ricky Jay, who of course in real-life is a first-rate magician), alongside Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo), Milton’s assistant. Angier sought only to entertain the audience, while Borden wanted to challenge them by daring to explore magic’s limits. One of the trademarks of Milton’s act was a water tank trick, where Angier and Borden pretend to be audience members called up to the stage to bind with ropes Julia’s hands (Borden) and feet (Angier), she gets dropped into the water tank, and while a curtain closes around the tank so the audience can’t see, she escapes. Except one night, she can’t break through the knot on her hands, so she drowns because she can’t get out of the water tank. Angier’s grief over this turns to hate when Borden admits he doesn’t know whether or not he tied a simple knot which guaranteed safety or a more complicated knot that would make the trick more daring if it worked. From there, Angier and Borden become bitter enemies, not only trying to sabotage each other – during Borden’s bullet catch routine, a disguised Angier puts something in the gun, which ends up crippling two of Borden’s fingers on his left hand; Borden, in turn, fixes Angier’s pigeon trick so it hurts an audience volunteer – but also trying to top each other. Angier becomes particularly obsessed when he sees Borden married to Sarah (Rebecca Hall), a customer at one of Borden’s shows – she had brought her nephew, who was able to figure out the pigeon trick – with a daughter, and (seemingly) having the happiness Angier once had.

Before they turned enemies, Borden claimed to have a trick no one else had that he’d unveil at the right time. That trick is the Transported Man. Borden’s version at first is to simply throw a rubber ball into the air from one side of the stage to the other, go through one doorway on stage, and then come out the other to catch it. Angier thinks it’s the best trick he’s ever seen, and while Cutter thinks Borden is merely using a double, both Angier and Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), his new assistant, are convinced he isn’t, and Angier tries to figure out Borden’s secret. First, at Cutter’s insistence, he hires a double, a drunken, out-of-work actor named Root (also played by Jackman), to help with the trick. Because Angier dresses up the trick more than Borden (who’s now billing himself as “The Professor”), it’s a success, but Root becomes less reliable and wants to blackmail Angier; plus, Root is the one getting all of the applause, which Angier hates. Next, Angier sends Olivia, who’s fallen in love with him, to go work for Borden, but this backfires when Olivia, hurt that she’s being used like this, goes to work for Borden for real – as well as falling in love with him – and Borden is able to sabotage Angier’s version of the trick, as well as crippling him in the process (Angier goes through a trap door onto a mattress, but the mattress is gone, so he breaks his leg). Finally, Angier steals Borden’s diary, and kidnaps Fallon so Borden will give him the key to deciphering it. Borden’s answer leads him on his final journey.

Earlier in the movie, Cutter sends Angier to see a scientific demonstration by Nikolai Tesla (David Bowie), who of course was a real-life scientist and, as the movie shows, bitter rival of Thomas Edison, who tried to sabotage Tesla in his own way. Tesla doesn’t show up at the demonstration – it’s his assistant Alley (Andy Serkis) – but Angier is intrigued by what he sees, and when Borden tells him Tesla is the key, Angier goes to America to visit him and asks him to build a machine. Tesla demurs at first, and Angier later finds out Borden didn’t know Tesla at all and was merely sending Angier on a wild-goose chase, but Angier persists, and after a few failed attempts, Tesla successfully builds a machine, though he warns Angier to destroy it. Instead, Angier uses it for his own version of the Transported Man trick, which becomes a huge success, even though Angier tells Cutter it’s only going to be for a limited time. Meanwhile, Borden has been having his own problems. Sarah is increasingly unhappy in their marriage, feeling there are secrets he’s not telling her, and that he’s shutting her out – early in their relationship, she jokes there are some days she can tell when he means it when he says he loves her, but as time goes on, that’s no longer a joke – and she ends up hanging herself. Olivia also feels like Borden’s cutting her off, and she ends up leaving him, though not before telling him Angier’s back in town, which sets up Angier’s murder.

It’s here Nolan finally plays his hand. Borden wasn’t trying to drown Angier, he was trying to save him. But he was arrested anyway, and when Borden reaches the end of Angier’s diary (which, as with Borden’s diary, Nolan uses for voice-overs), it reveals Angier set the whole thing up so Borden would be framed for his murder in the same way Julia was killed. And when Lord Caldlow brings Jess to say goodbye to her father one last time, Borden gets the shock of his life; Lord Caldlow is none other than Angier (or, to be technical, Angier is Lord Caldlow, as Angier had said at the beginning he used a fake name so his family wouldn’t be shamed by his profession), who gloats he’s forever proved himself the better magician, and doesn’t even need Borden’s secret anymore. Borden claims he’s got one more trick up his sleeve, and indeed he does; while he’s being hanged, and Lord Caldlow locks up his machine forever, Borden appears out of nowhere to shoot him. Turns out Fallon, instead of just being Borden’s friend and trusted confidante, is in reality Borden’s identical twin brother, cleverly disguised, and it was Fallon who was hanged. Before Caldlow dies, and as the place goes up in flames, he in turn reveals the Machine, far from “transporting” him, in fact cloned him (we’ve already seen how that works with Angier’s hat, as well as Alley’s pet cat), and he would kill the clone Caldlow/Angier (or was it the real one?) after each trick. As Borden is reunited with Jess (who, as in the beginning of the film, is with Cutter), and the warehouse where the Machine is goes up in flames, we hear again Cutter’s speech from the beginning (up through “You want to be fooled”) and we see one of Caldlow/Angier’s many dead clones.

As in the case of any movie that relies on a twist ending, there are three questions that must be asked of said movie. One, is the twist genuinely surprising? Two, was it properly prepared for? And three, and arguably most important, even after knowing the twist, can you still watch the movie again and enjoy it? The answer to all three questions in this case, I believe, is a resounding yes. I hadn’t read Priest’s novel before seeing the movie (the book, which I haven’t read in a while, is somewhat different; Angier and Borden were more sympathetic, and in the book, Borden’s the showman), so I had no idea what coming at the end, and was completely fooled. As for the second question, Borden and Fallon is twins is a great example of Nolan hiding something in plain sight the entire time, as Bale does very subtle work when playing Fallon. Yet even as Angier in the movie is convinced Borden isn’t using a double, we’re given clues throughout, from Sarah wondering why Borden’s fingers still hurt after the bullet catch gone wrong (Fallon had to injure his fingers the same way), the “joke” about whether he means it when he says “I love you” that day, and even earlier, when in his diary, Borden says he questions himself about the night Julia was killed; he doesn’t know whether it was he or Fallon who tied the knot.

As for the last question, the film becomes a lot darker and edgier the second time when you realize the lengths Angier and Borden went to top each other. This isn’t a clear-cut tale of a hero vs. a villain, but of two complex protagonists who really aren’t that likable. I know that bothered some critics and viewers, but to me, it made the film all the more fascinating. Another part of the film’s complexity is to see how Nolan, in essence, is making a movie about how one approaches any art, from magic to movies – are you out merely to entertain the audience, or are you trying to stretch the limits of your art by challenging them? Yet Nolan doesn’t frame the debate in simplistic turns; it’s clear how hard both Angier and Borden work at their craft, and how challenging it is to produce a trick that entertains, that pushes the limits of magic, or even does both at once. Another way Nolan’s filmmaking is more complex than at first glance is how, while this is a period piece, the costumes (designed by Joan Bergin) and the sets (Nathan Crowley was the production designer, Kevin Kavanaugh was the art designer, and Julie Ochipinti was the set designer) don’t call attention to themselves – as is often the case in period pieces – unless it’s appropriate, as with the magic scenes.

It could be argued, of course, the one place Nolan does play it safe is in casting the lead roles; after all, while Jackman is best known on film for the dark and brooding Wolverine, he is in essence a showman (and a very good and popular one), while Bale comes off as more serious-minded and dedicated, sometimes to extreme measures (as with his weight loss for The Machinist, for example). Yet just as Hitchcock pushed his leading men like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart towards unfamiliar territory for them. so does Nolan here. Jackman has never gone as dark, and as bitter, as he does here; the bitter triumph he holds over Borden (or so he thinks) at the jail is maybe the best acting he’s done, and when he’s dying at the end and talking about why he does what he does – “it was for the look on (the audience’s) faces” – Jackman doesn’t sentimentalize the moment. This is sort of the flip side of Jackman’s crowd-pleasing persona. As for Bale, he of course had already become known for playing characters with different identities, both physical (Batman) and/or psychological (Patrick Bateman), but he takes it to another level here. And for someone who is often criticized for over-acting, Bale is often very subtle here, particularly when he’s playing Fallon; he manages the difficult trick of giving two distinct performances without calling attention to that fact.

One of the criticisms often lobbed at Nolan is how women tend to take a back seat in his films. This has certainly been true in his Batman movies – which will make it interesting to see how Nolan and Anne Hathaway handle Catwoman – but I think Nolan’s track record in this area is better than he’s given credit for. After all, Carrie-Ann Moss in Memento, Hilary Swank in Insomnia, and Marion Cotillard and Ellen Page in Inception are all playing interesting characters; they may not be the driving force of the plot (although Cotillard arguably is, or at least the driving force of the main character’s motivation), but nor are they just “the girl”. And I think Hall and Johansson serve the same function here Swank and Page served with their characters; they, in essence, represent the audience, trying to figure out exactly what makes Angier and Borden tick. It’s true Olivia is a more active character than Sarah, but since she’s involved in the magic world and Sarah isn’t, that makes sense. And both Hall and Johansson make their characters real and believable; Hall’s scene where she tells Borden (or Fallon), “I know what you are” is especially well played.

Finally, another charge normally brought against Nolan is how his films are visually incoherent. Mostly, this has been about the Batman films as well as Inception; I don’t necessarily agree with the critics (Jim Emerson being the leading one) about that, but I at least understand it. Here, however, Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister (who has shot every Nolan film from Memento on), along with editor Smith, make the action clean and precise, and yet exciting (again, for a period piece, this has a rapid tempo). To tie it all up; would Hitchcock have liked The Prestige? I think so, for he’d recognize a few of his narrative tricks, as well as how Nolan “manipulates” us in such a way that we enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed it.

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12 Comments
  1. Ah yes, the movie reviewer who complains about film being manipulative is right next to my favourite, the one who says “take away such & such element and what have you got?” – Well, why take it away? It is part of the film. They make me sigh.

    I gave up reading your article at about the half way point because you have intrigued me and I have added “The Prestige” to a movie I must see. I don’t think I overlooked it upon its release, just may not have been aware of it. Thank you in advance!

  2. Excellent PRESTIGE post, Sean! I’ll admit I haven’t had the opportunity to see the film yet, but you made good points about its themes. It’s true, all movies — and all TV shows, novels, and other story-telling media, for that matter — are manipulative in one way or another to pique audience interest. You picked a fine example with the scenes you cited from SINGLES, as well as the hilarious MANT! from Joe Dante’s MATINEE! 🙂 I got a kick out of your caption about Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman: “Batman and Wolverine, together for the first time.” And what a cast! Glad to see Christopher Nolan knew Ricky Jay just HAS to be in any film about magic and magicians, and having Andy Serkis, Scarlett Johannson, Rebecca Hall, and David Bowie as Tesla is icing on what sounds like a mighty tasty cake! We’re glad to have you joining in the Best Hitchcock Movies…Never Made Blogathon fun — thanks, Sean!

  3. I love this film so much. And now that you mention it, it does have a Hitchcock flavor to it. Very enjoyable post!

  4. Thanks, Marsha; glad you liked both the film and my post.

  5. John Greco permalink

    Sean,

    What a great introduction! Well done. Manipulation is certainly a key ingrediant in any film. As soon as the filmmaker points a camera in a certain direction he is manipulating the audience, no doubt about it. THE PRESTIGE is a terrific film and your review does it justice

  6. Finally, a movie I’ve seen! Great write-up on a great movie, Sean Gallagher.

  7. Sean, I am sorry I missed commenting on your post on Sunday, but it was certainly worth the wait. I have seen “The Prestige”, as well as “The Illusionist”, and read the stories that inspired both films. I was not aware; however, the director behind “The Prestige” was also behind “Inception” and “Memento”. I say this by way of explaining that I too frequently enjoy contemporary films without the same knowledge of their directors as I have with classic films. Hitchcock said in interviews that his goal in films was the audience’s “enjoyment of fear” and likewise “the quality of imagination” was of paramount importance. I have never read and interview with Christopher Nolan, but I can say each of the films I’ve seen, including the Batman films, certainly allows the audience to enjoy (its) fear and engage (its) imagination. I was not able to suspend my disbelief entirely with “The Prestige”, but that was due to a minor plot difference from the book to the film. However, for the most part I felt Nolan improved on the story, and I simply think Michael Caine can do no wrong (hyperbole? I think not). You’ve written an excellent review; your parallels between Hitchcock and Nolan are convincing, and now I want to see both “The Prestige” and “The Illusionist” again.

    • Thanks! I agree about the “quality of imagination” Nolan brings to the film (and that Hitchcock brought to his films). What was the plot point you didn’t like being changed?

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