A Real-Time Houdini Viewing Experience, Part 1

(Ed. note: Today, we welcome the lovely and talented Heather Senz as our newest contributor. In what can only be described as our own version of hazing, her first assignment was to recap a dense two-part television movie event – The History Channel’s Houdini – without the benefit of a DVR. Luckily, she’s fantastic and hilarious. Part 1, covering the first installment from September 1st, is below. Part 2, covering the conclusion on September 2nd, will follow. -KL)

Voiceover: “One way or another, we all want to escape.”

Harry Houdini (Adrien Brody, The Pianist) is standing on a bridge. Below, a blonde man shakes his head “noooo” in slow motion. There is a large crowd of people gathered. They are not saying no. In fact, they appear quite encouraging.  Houdini jumps into an icy river from a bridge, shackled.  A woman runs to the edge, looks concerned.  Houdini picks the lock with a hidden lock pick and escapes to the sound of 1990s grunge guitar.

Voiceover: “My name is Ehrich Weiss, but no one has called me that in a long time.” This is true. My biography fact list agrees.

There’s a quick montage of scenes from the show that I will not describe because SPOILERS—all while someone is saying “Harry, can you hear me?” Now the soundtrack sounds like it came from Underworld. Credits.

Adrien Brody has a bad accent here that grows on you over time until it no longer sounds weird. Did it ever? He announces that 17 years before, everything changed. He had already married Bess, the worried women from the bridge, whose name I already know and whose actress I already recognize due to background research, demonstrating my dedication (Kristen Connolly, House of Cards). (Ed. note – Dedication duly noted!) Bess booked them an act in a brothel. Oops. She cares not. He wants to leave; she insists they stay and begin the show.  Someone in the audience provides Harry with real handcuffs. A cop challenges him. This I know is true from the biography; he was famous for this. He had lock picks in his belt, and he fools them all by turning away so they can’t see his trickery. We’re given an inside view of locks. Heartbeat. The cop smirks. Houdini turns around, free. Even Bess looks amazed. “I’ll be damned,” says the cop.

This turned Houdini into an escape artist, which is what he meant about everything changing. Harry and Bess join some kind of traveling show. There are clips of his work, all of it impressive if not a tad surreal. Audiences are pleased.

Next scene: sex in gypsy caravan. Romantically, he tells Bess she has whisky breath. Now Bess decides to tell him she wants out of this life. He refuses. Houdini will not be a locksmith; he will not be like his father. He loved his father, but he was nobody. Houdini insists he is not going to disappear. Not unless a million people are watching.

(Note about the soundtrack: This seriously sounds like a vampire movie.)

Suddenly, there is a flashback, and a woman screaming as Little Houdini watches a traveling show, featuring a man chopping up a woman in a box. Houdini is mesmerized. He gets called up on stage to assist. He helps pull apart the table and tickles her feet, making her laugh. Finally, it is revealed she was fine all along, ha ha. Houdini voiceovers that he was finally “Somebody” and “I was going somewhere, and illusion was my ticket.” He starts performing himself and shows some useful skills. People give him money.

In turn, he gives his mother money by raining the silver coins down on her, and she laughs crazy-like as she picks them up. The aforementioned father is disapproving.

Apparently, it’s Halloween. Trick or treat is happening for everyone but the Weiss boys. Disapproving dad is even more disapproving.

Little Harry (well, then, little Ehrich) is reading a book about a famous French magician named Houdin. Ehrich’s family nickname “Erie” is heard. “Erie” would later become “Harry” and I bet you can guess how he gets his last name.

Suddenly, threatening men are at the door, and we think something terrible is about to happen, but turns out they are just his father’s followers, firing him for being a Rabbi that still was not speaking English after 6 years in America. They think he needs to get with the times. Houdini decides this would be a great time to run away. Then the show glosses over all Little Harry’s traveling, his reunion with his family, his father’s death, and the magic act that Harry started with his brother. Zoom.

Next scene: Harry pulls a rabbit out of a hat and ogles Bess. She is a performer, some kind of dancing girl. It’s a charming little courtship. There’s happy, laughing at the fair time, complete with slo-mo tea cups. We learn he is already calling himself Harry Houdini, and he refuses to tell her his real name. He makes her an origami bird, and when she teases him because it’s lame, he makes it float. Using magnets maybe. HOLY SHIT, NOW IT’S A REAL BIRD. There are fireworks in the background. Suddenly, there is a marriage proposal. If that seems fast, it is, but it’s based on fact. Harry and Bess married within three weeks of meeting.

Potentially on their honeymoon, he puts her in a trunk in her sleeping clothes and she bewilders her way out. Her response: “Are you out of your damn mind?”

He gets her to join the show, saying his brother won’t mind. If he did, they never really say. The Houdinis hit the road with the freak show. Harry’s like a monkey man, picking locks and playing cards with his feet in his spare time, and Bess’ job is to look pretty. They are both successful.

The two go from town to town. He challenges cops that they can’t detain them, not with their fancy handcuffs and jail cells. He lets the cop punch him, for fun. FUN. He is apparently all muscle and the punch doesn’t hurt at all. Reporters write everything down.

:::Commercial break::: Samuel L Jackson breaks my heart. He’s better than a credit card commercial. His enthusiasm borders on manic.

Now there’s a commercial for a magician credit card. Because of course. Pawn Shops, which preceded Houdini, also had a magician at the end. I only know because I was waiting for the show to start, and I was on time. Early even. Because I have to keep up. THERE IS NO DVR. (Oh yeah, some quotes may approximate.)

My husband is surprised this is a bizarre fictionalization of Houdini. I don’t think I explained my evening plans very well. He is doubting the facts. So far, it is lining up with what I’ve read. My knowledge is about to be surpassed though, so I’ll have to stop sounding indignant when he questions the validity of what we are seeing.

:::Back::: Same cop scene. They don’t believe he can do this, and search his mouth for keys. Nothing. But he had swallowed the key. HA HA. He becomes famous, overnight apparently, but then it becomes clear that time is skipping ahead quickly.

They stress that his mother keeps a scrapbook. That’s probably sweet. Harry seems to only care that he is famous and that his mom is impressed, which we shouldn’t read into at all.

The blonde guy from the beginning shows up to impress Houdini and to get a job. He has cool things. He made a rounded key, all by himself. He introduces himself as Jim Collins (Evan Jones, October Road). He fills Houdini’s head with what are probably terrible ideas:  “I can help you catch a bullet.” Give him time, he can make an elephant disappear.

Oh, now it shows us mommy has a fan girl room with the early 19th century equivalent of Tiger Beat clippings of her son on the wall, including a giant poster that looks like modern S & M. It’s tasteful.

In Chicago, cops have Harry covered in chains. He’s carried to a cell, and he makes sure pictures are taken.

Jim is pretending to be a reporter. Oh, Jim.

Shockingly, Houdini escapes.

Random mom scene: Harry decides that, now that he’s rich and lives in a mansion and has been successful for a good long while, it is finally time to rescue his mother from squalor and move her in with them. A footman greets her carriage and opens the door. She is just getting there now? She probably would have been content in a non-mansion.

Back to Jim as a new hire. They introduce the iconic water torture cell. I’d like to take a moment to mention that Jimmy’s chin is rather… defined? He doesn’t look real. Anyway, Harry insists on trying out his new toy right away. It does not go well. They have to break the glass with an axe and it’s very dramatic. Houdini is not conscious. The glass breaks and Jim calls “Boss! Boss!”  as Harry spills to the floor. He coughs awake.

His response? “Fantastic.”

Showtime. The audience is told to hold their breath to see how inferior they are about to feel. A giant clock ticks. Harry strips and gets all shackled up and put in stocks. He is locked in the tank upside down. The curtain comes out for mystery. The clock ticks some more, ominously. Two minutes. Three. The audience decides something is terribly wrong and they demonstrate this by shouting. A fireman runs on the stage, ready to save Houdini again. However, the tank is empty. THE FIREMAN IS HOUDINI.

Washington, D.C. Some important-looking men are discussing Houdini. Is he in trouble? Fraud maybe? One government guy declares that the background check shows he is just a “German-speaking Hungarian immigrant Jew.” That sounded a little judgmental, I thought. Doesn’t matter. Harry seems to pass because the background check also reveals he loves his mom. He must be okay.

:::Commercial Break:::

Houdini and the Wahlbergs are apparently the same. A&E is in on the theme.

So is Chrysler.

:::Back to Show::: Houdini and another man are walking in a park lined with gas lamps. (No visible vampires yet, but I’ve both read and seen Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I’m waiting.) The British guy explains England has partnered with the CIA and they all agree that Houdini’s act would be an awesome cover for a little espionage. The Brit delivers the standard message from any spy agency: “We will disavow you, this is dangerous, blah blah, your country needs you, no, not the country you were born in but this one, of which we have now decided you are a citizen.” Why isn’t the American man giving this speech? It would be much more convincing.

Turns out, the US changed his passport, declaring that he was born in Wisconsin. This really happened. But is this why? Kind of presumptuous of us, really, but apparently this was also to shield him from evil.

After Harry returns from one of his secret-spy meetings, Bess is not impressed with his lies, and Harry realizes that being a spy is hard. Bess thinks he’s cheating and his “I can’t tell you where I’ve been” explanations are no good. Her trust is clearly being tested.

Voiceover: “When does illusion become a lie?” (Please note: His voiceovers are longer than what I can capture—I just quote the important stuff and/or the first thing he says.)

Harry has a dream where a man shoots a bullet at his head. This is usually scary, but I know Houdini knows this trick so I’m not sure why he seems so concerned. I don’t know who the man is, until another flashback. Houdini’s a kid again, an apprentice learning magic on the road from the man in the dream. This must be when he ran away. All little Houdini wants is to learn the bullet trick, where he would catch a bullet in his mouth, but the magician squashes his dreams immediately. Apparently, his son died doing that trick, and the magician was the one that shot him. Houdini doesn’t really seem deterred.

Voiceover: “Only enough truth to make you believe the lies.”

Ominous lightning.

Now it’s 1905. Houdini is spying in Germany, performing for whatever monarch was there. It’s held in a grand auditorium, and now he’s challenging a member of the King’s guard (or whatever) to hit the bullseye with this giant rifle. The military man does so easily.

Houdini loads the gun again, slowly. Everyone agrees everything is real. Houdini stands in front of the bullseye. At first, I don’t think the military guy will flinch, but he does. He looks to his king. Houdini is yelling encouragement. Commercial.


Did it work? Yes. He had a bullet between his teeth in his intact head.

They are giving an explanation about magnets. True? Somebody fact check this for me.

More spying. One of his government buddies reminds Houdini he doesn’t know Budapest because he is all-American now and has never been here, so please stop looking nostalgic. He then provides important-sounding but boring information about battleships. Houdini is given a secret book message with a completely unsubtle assignment to Russia.

Weird side scene: Houdini bought his mom a fancy dress. He then assembles a grand crowd and escorts his mother to a throne? Apparently, he’s told some obscure country that she’s a Queen and they bought it. Houdini decides now is an opportune moment to pour gold coins on her, like he promised. She looks startled, then delighted. “Ehrich, you are my gold.”

More spying. Oh my god, it’s Anastasia. Rasputin looks like a hillbilly. Anastasia helps Houdini make bells ring from across the way; bells that have ceased to work. He also asks Hillbilly Rasputin to punch him, and Rasputin’s punch does hurt, but no one knows.

:::Commercial Break::: Samuel L Jackson is giving me the sads again.

:::Show::: What we’ve learned: People talk to magicians they trust, because somehow they seem like they can keep secrets. Government secrets. Stupid Tsar.

Houdini wants a new challenge. It looks like he chooses robbery. For the government, though, so it’s okay.

At this show, Houdini is supposedly in a safe and the audience is told Houdini has 10 minutes of air. In truth, Houdini is long gone and Bess doesn’t know why or where he is. She says it’s their anniversary and she bets he forgot. Jimmy looks pleased Houdini is neglectful.

Next door, Houdini is almost caught breaking into a real safe and decides the best course of action is to just get inside. How much air does he really have, one wonders. Back at the show, the audience is demanding they let him out of the fake safe, because the audience always says that.

:::Commercial break::: More Geico magic.

:::Show::: Now the music is reminiscent of Mission: Impossible. Houdini must get back for the finale. He has a surprise for Bess. Back at the show, the audience is in an uproar and are trying to break down the safe. At the real safe, the ambassador and his lady friend finally leave.

The audience has managed to open the safe. Houdini is gone! In his place, there is a letter.

Flash to Houdini completing his spy hand-off. Will he make it back in time? Doesn’t look that way!

The letter is for Bess. She is called on stage and walks out like she has never been on a stage before, which isn’t true, Bess. Houdini appears in the audience and asks her to read the love letter out loud. Also, abracadabra, he has a diamond choker. Jimmy laughs. Too hard? I may be inventing things. The necklace is beautiful, but she hates it. She hates everything. Everything is for the show. Houdini and his wife argue.  Jimmy interrupts the fight to announce it is time to party.

At the party, Houdini is surrounded by women and is being charming. Bess makes Houdini jealous because she is being ignored, and he flips out. A lot.

Back home, Bess finds Houdini on a bathroom floor, threatening to kill himself.  She denies actually kissing the other man.

Him: “YOU ARE THE WIFE OF THE GREAT HOUDINI.” Honestly, that’s his plan. He says that to her.

Her: “Really? I thought I was a woman you put in a trunk and took out when you felt like it.”

Mrs. Houdini wins.

Houdini goes to a whore (or a social peer, I can’t tell. Groupie?). At the last second, he decides against it, looks out a window with angst and sees an airplane. He cuffs his companion to the bed and leaves by leaping out her window. Jimmy is right beneath the window in a carriage, waiting, not at all like a stalker. He calls the airplane an “airmobile.” He would be adorable if he didn’t remind me of a gremlin.

Fast moving times shows that audiences are no longer impressed. Houdini fires Jimmy for not trying hard enough to put on a good show, even though there isn’t a full house. Jimmy’s response, “Again?”  Houdini’s manager suggests he start performing in smaller theaters. Houdini is insulted and storms off, yelling about how great he is.

Bess, Harry, and Jimmy are watching movies. Houdini is skeptical of Charlie Chaplin, because it’s not even real magic, just camera magic. Bess says it’s good publicity for the real fake tricks. Jimmy suggests the elephant gimmick, but Houdini is now scornful—he doesn’t need elephants, he needs escapes, because if they hadn’t noticed, that’s what he does. Later, Bess thinks people are tired of escapes and says so while apparently smoking pot. She calls it Mexican tobacco. Sure Bess.

So Harry decides to immerse himself in ice in a bathtub. While doing so, Bess mentions to her crazy husband that they have now been married 19 years. Only her hair ages, and just by growing longer. Magic is apparently great for the complexion.

That bathtub torture is apparently training for the bridge jump from back in the beginning of the show. The scene shifts to Bess and Harry standing a bit away from the bridge on Jump Day, speculating. Bess does not approve of his plan, stating that she refuses to watch herself become a widow. It’s all about Bess. She leaves and is next seen crying with smudged eye make-up in an empty restaurant, smoking. Probably Mexican tobacco again.

Back to the scene in the beginning.  A crowd gathers. Everyone is happy to see him try to kill himself. They smile and wave.

Bess does return to see if she is a widow after all. Houdini can’t find his way out of the ice. The shackles fall, sinking into the depths. The same montage from the first 5 minutes plays, I think, but cannot prove. (Again, no DVR. What century am I in?)

Then, abruptly, “To be continued.” Next time, straight jackets and elephants, defrauding people and obvious mommy issues. (I knew it!)