Magic (1978): Richard Attenborough’s Horror Thriller, Starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith

Richard Attenborough directed Magic, a horror thriller with romantic touches, starring Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret and Burgess Meredith, based on a screenplay by William Goldman, who wrote the novel upon which it was based.

Grade: B (***1/2 out of *****)


Theatrical release poster

Joseph E. Levine bought the film rights to Goldman’s novel for $1 million, which included Goldman’s fee for writing the script.

After Charles “Corky” Withers (Hopkins) fails in his first attempt at professional magic, his mentor Merlin (E.J. André) says he needs to have better gimmick.

A year later, Corky comes back as combo magician and ventriloquist with foul-mouthed dummy named Fats, and becomes huge success.

Corky’s powerful agent Ben Greene (Meredith) wants to sign him for his TV show, but Corky bails out for the Catskills, where he grew up. His talent agent thinks that Corky is “afraid of success.” In truth, Corky does not want to take the TV network’s required medical examination because the doctors might find out his mental issues, and that even off-stage he cannot control Fats (Corky’s id).

In the Catskills, Corky reunites with high school crush Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), who is stuck in passionless marriage with Duke (Ed Lauter), Corky’s friend.

A magic trick with cards charms Peggy into thinking they are soulmates, leading to sex. This sparks the jealousy of Duke, and also the dummy Fats. In the midst of argument “between” Corky and Fats, Greene arrives unexpectedly and discovers the truth about Corky’s state of mind.

Corky pleads that nothing is wrong with him, that he is just rehearsing, so Greene puts him to the test, saying “Make Fats shut up for 5 minutes.” Corky puts aside Fats, but is unable to last 5 minutes without delivering rapid stream of speech through Fats. Greene demands that Corky get help and leaves to calls the doctors, but Fats convinces Corky to kill his agent.

Corky chases after Greene in the woods and bludgeons him with Fats’ hard wooden head and then attempts to drag the body into a lake. However, still-living Greene suddenly lunges at him, causing Corky to drown him.

Fats becomes more possessive and jealous when Corky says he plans to elope with Peggy and leave the dummy behind.

Duke, suspecting his wife has cheated on him, wants to talk with Corky by the lake. Rather than confront him, Duke confides that he loves Peggy and is worried about losing her. Duke suddenly spots Greene’s body on the edge of the lake. Duke, believing Greene is still alive, sends Corky for help. He searches Corky’s cabin, where Fats stabs him with a knife.

The increasingly deranged Corky persuades Peggy to run away with him, but she insists on telling Duke face to face. Fats “comes alive” and reveals that Corky’s card trick is only ruse to seduce women.

Fats says that he will make the decisions in Corky’s life, asserting this new authority by ordering Corky to kill Peggy. Corky, using Fats’ voice, apologizes to Peggy through her locked door.

Corky returns with bloodstained knife, and Fats seems pleased– until it’s revealed that the blood is Corky’s, who has stabbed himself so he won’t kill anyone else. They wonder which one of them will die first.

Peggy returns to the cabin, happily declaring that she has decided to run away with Corky after all. While speaking, she playfully changes her voice to impersonate Fats.

Well received by most critics, Magic was a commercial success at the box-office, which benefited from its modest budget of $7 million.

The first draft was written for director Norman Jewison, who wanted Jack Nicholson to star, but Nicholson turned it down– he did not want to wear a hairpiece. Spielberg expressed interest in directing and considered casting De Niro for Corky. Richard Attenborough, who had made A Bridge Too Far with Goldman and Levine, then agreed to direct.

Laurence Olivier was offered the agent’s role but was unable to do it, so Burgess Meredith was cast. Meredith modelled his performance on the agent Swifty Lazar, shaving his head to look like Lazar. “I tried to get his cool, understated manner, his sharp clothes, and most of all, his way of speaking softly so that you’ve got to lean over to hear what he’s saying,” said Meredith.

Goldman later wrote about the film that “Meredith was perfect and Tony Hopkins…was so wonderful here. But running stride for stride with him was Miss Olsson. I think Ann-Margret is the least appreciated emotional actress anywhere.”

Ann-Margret and Anthony Hopkins were each paid around $300,000 for their performances.

Exteriors were shot in Ukiah, California. Most of the exterior shots were shot at Le Trianon resort on the Blue Lake in Upper Lake, California.

Hopkins received both Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for his role as the disturbed Corky.

The score was composed and conducted by composer Jerry Goldsmith, and the soundtrack was released on CD in April 2003.

Madness resulting from one person living two personas through ventriloquist’s dummy has been portrayed before in film and television: The Great Gabbo, a 1929 film, Dead of Night, a 1945 British film, Knock on Wood, a 1954 film, and others.

Anthony Hopkins as Corky Withers (and the voice of Fats)
Ann-Margret as Peggy Ann Snow
Burgess Meredith as Ben Greene
Ed Lauter as Duke
E. J. André as Merlin
Jerry Houser as Taxi Driver
David Ogden Stiers as Todson
Lillian Randolph as Sadie


Directed by Richard Attenborough
Screenplay by William Goldman, based on Magic, 1976 novel by William Goldman
Produced by Joseph E. Levine, Richard P. Levine

Cinematography Victor J. Kemper
Edited by John Bloom
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Release date: November 8, 1978

Running time: 107 minutes
Budget $7 million
Box office $23.8 million