The Magician (1926), Rex Ingram’s curious occult horror film, receives a rare screening with live music accompaniment at the Brighton Fringe Festival on Tuesday, 22nd May. The film is notable for being based on the 1908 Somerset Maugham novel of the same name whose modern-day magus character, Oliver Haddo, was modelled on Aleister Crowley. The screening will feature an introduction by Gary Lachman, and a live soundtrack by the fabulous Ragged Ragtime Band, featuring members of Blondie, Indigo Octagon, Raagnagrok and Time. Booking details and other information here.
Maugham’s book has always been easier to find than Ingram’s film, more’s the pity when the film—despite some flaws—is the superior article. Read today, the novel comes across as a template for the standard Dennis Wheatley tale of middle-class innocents imperilled by grandiloquent villainy. A young couple, Arthur Burdon and his fiancée, Margaret, are pitted against Haddo’s extravagant diabolisms; for assistance they have a friend, Dr Porhoët, a Van Helsing type, older than the couple and with a convenient (but purely intellectual) interest in the occult. Haddo kidnaps Margaret and forces her with hypnosis into an unconsummated marriage. Haddo’s goal is to create artificial life—homunculi—and for that he requires a virgin’s blood. Maugham later described his novel as “lush and turgid”, an honest and accurate appraisal. Aleister Crowley was amused at being portrayed as a “Brother of the Shadows” but pretended to be scandalised by Maugham’s alleged plagiarism which he condemned in a Vanity Fair review that he signed “Oliver Haddo”. The best parts of the novel certainly owe something to other authors, usually the scenes concerning the sinister magus and his occult activities; the rest of the characters are lifeless by comparison. Some of the better passages read like HP Lovecraft writing Dorian Gray, and Maugham not only quotes from Walter Pater but also (uncredited) from Wilde’s Salomé.
Paul Wegener as Oliver Haddo.
By the time Ingram came to make his film this kind of Decadent diablerie was rather old-fashioned. He and his crew were stationed at the Victorine studios in Nice on the Côte d’Azur where they’d already made Mare Nostrum, a First World War story in which Ingram’s wife, Alice Terry, played a character based on Mata Hari. The location was significant because a 20-year-old Michael Powell had recently moved there with his parents to help run a hotel, but film-obsessed Powell ended up running off with the film crew instead. Powell not only has a small comic role in The Magician but it’s thanks to his autobiography (A Life in Movies, 1986) that we know something about the film’s background:
It was a horror film made at a time when there were very few in America… Germany led the field with Nosferatu, The Golem and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Of course, Rex had seen these and many others, and he yearned to emulate them. But Maugham’s story defeated him; and his own good taste.
Michael Powell (left) in his first film role.
Ingram yearned to emulate the Germans to the extent of casting the father of the German horror film (and star of The Golem), Paul Wegener, in the role of Oliver Haddo. Powell found Wegener disappointing:
If Crowley himself had played the part it might have been more entertaining… Crowley, besides being monstrous and outrageous, was also witty and charming… Wegener, alas, contributed nothing to his part but a theatrical presence.
The “theatrical presence” involves the kind of mannered emoting that was old-fashioned by the 1920s. Wegener evokes nothing of Haddo’s hypnotic charisma but seems much of the time to be completely insane. During breaks in the filming, Powell raided Ingram’s library for interesting reading, eventually discovering a set of works by Arthur Machen, a writer who’d known Crowley when the pair were members of The Golden Dawn:
I swallowed Arthur Machen gulp by gulp… We were preparing for the Faun Dance… Harry Lachman was designing sets and costumes for a Walpurgisnacht. Stowitts, the great dancer and partner of Pavlova, was dancing the Faun, naked except for the tail of a goat. How Arthur Machen would have loved it! For surely behind the demure silhouette, which his publishers chose to be his image, there lurked the Great God Pan.
Hubert Stowitts as Pan.
The Faun Dance is the major set-piece of the film and spins out the Pan associations more than Maugham’s description of Margaret’s visions. According to Powell, Ingram grew bored with it and left its direction to Harry Lachman, an account borne out by the later style of Lachman’s remarkable 1935 drama, Dante’s Inferno.
Watching The Magician recently I was struck by another surprising association: in one scene Ingram has Haddo in Monte Carlo where he’s using his new bride as an expert roulette player, a scene with a surprising connection to the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, whose gambling villain, Le Chiffre, was also based on Aleister Crowley. (There’s a story that when Ian Fleming was with Naval Intelligence during the Second World War he suggested they use Crowley to debrief Rudolf Hess about the occult obsessions of the Nazi high command.) Did Crowley, Maugham and Ingram inadvertently help give birth to James Bond? Over to you, cultural historians.
Haddo and his dwarf assistant in the laboratory/alchemist’s lair.
In the past The Magician has suffered the fate of too many films from the silent era by being deemed unworthy of television screening or DVD release. That’s changed recently with a DVD reissue, and now this live screening. Among the film’s other merits is an underplayed performance from Alice Terry that’s worlds away from her simpering counterparts in later occult dramas that followed the template established by Ingram, films such as White Zombie and The Black Cat (a film with Boris Karloff as another Crowley avatar). Many subsequent horror films owe The Magician a debt if only because their stereotyped scenarios found their first expression here.