Houdini (1953) Blu-ray Review

Married Hollywood legends produce gold with sizzling on-screen chemistry

Husband and wife Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, one of classic Hollywood’s most iconic marriages, teamed up to play Harry and Bess Houdini in this charming biopic of the legendary illusionist and escape artist. Directed by George Marshall (Destry Rides Again) in Technicolor goodness, the 1953 film is a light-hearted telling of Houdini’s life without feeling a need for complete historical accuracy. Houdini is smooth Hollywood entertainment rooted in the storytelling conventions of its day, chronicling the performer’s rise from carnival act to international fame. It lacks the inner psychological complexity of heavier fare but entertains with heart-felt enthusiasm for Harry and Bess Houdini.

Before eventually divorcing in 1962, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh would have two children together, including future horror icon Jamie Lee Curtis. The movie was made early in their marriage and Janet Leigh gives one of the most believable performances in screen history as Harry Houdini’s loving wife, Bess. It’s clear Janet Leigh’s deep feelings for Curtis leak into the movie, giving their on-screen relationship an extra layer of magic absent from most romantic movies. Transcending mere acting, casting the married stars in these roles was a masterstroke.

The plot itself is a romanticized portrayal of Harry Houdini’s famed career, touching upon his rise to fame in Europe and subsequent return to America. It does address the illusionist’s brush with spiritualism after the death of his beloved mother. Harry Houdini would eventually enjoy notoriety as a fierce skeptic of mediums, exposing their bag of tricks. The movie is light and breezy by biopic standards. What makes it such a winner is the loving depiction between Harry and Bess. Bess Houdini is brought into Harry’s act as a partner, though she becomes uncomfortable with it when he attempts increasingly dangerous stunts.

The production goes all out in staging Houdini’s most well-known feats

Unencumbered by the current Hollywood obsession to add turmoil and inner conflict to its protagonists, Houdini is a feel-good romantic comedy about the most famous magician of all time. The production goes all out in staging Houdini’s most well-known feats, including breaking out of a locked box in a frozen river. Made during the height of Hollywood’s famed studio system, it was created by a litany of talented craftsmen steeped in filmmaking. Edith Head, winner of eight Academy Awards for costume design, delivered a magnificent and ever-changing wardrobe for the production.

The whirlwind romance between Harry and Bess is utterly convincing with married stars Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh playing them. Seeing the push and pull between these two great stars is worth the price of admission alone. There is an innocence to Houdini as a movie that likely doesn’t survive in today’s Hollywood.

Houdini Blu-ray screen shot 15

Video

This new edition from Olive Films isn’t the first time Houdini has hit Blu-ray. Legend put the 1953 production out a few years ago as part of a double feature. Both versions are licensed from Paramount Pictures, likely offering the same source. Olive Films subtly improves the movie’s picture quality despite some limitations in the current high-definition transfer. Given the softer look and mild processing, it appears both used an older film transfer struck in the DVD era, possibly a telecine effort.

The clarity is fine, while lacking that extra bit of detail new restorations usually pull out from the elements. Some minor registration errors in the Technicolor elements produce limited color fringing at times, though it’s mostly notable in a few scenes.

The main feature runs 106 minutes on a BD-25. The AVC video encode is adequate, largely reproducing the older transfer’s limited grain structure without artifacts. One scene is problematic, introducing mild macroblocking over the grain fields. The 1080P video is framed at the film’s original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Its Technicolor elements are in stable condition, largely free of significant damage.

Outside of a specific scene in the last act with debris and wear along the edge, the presentation offers a clean experience. I do wonder how much more detail a new 4K film restoration would bring to the table from these elements. It’s possible mild scrubbing was applied to clean up the elements. The grain structure is unusually flat and minimal.

The Technicolor palette exudes a healthy dose of saturation and contrast. Black levels are fairly strong. Shot by legendary cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, Houdini was made with eye candy in mind. The set pieces are beautifully staged and shot. Lacking the pop and definition of a new film scan, this remains a very serviceable presentation of vintage filmmaking that offers truly Hi-Def video.

Audio

The original mono soundtrack comes in 2.0 DTS-HD MA lossless audio. Composer Roy Webb’s score is the most prominent element of the sound mix. Dialogue and sound effects are heard in adequate fidelity with a thin, reedy quality. The audio could use a restoration as well, though it’s serviceable on this disc without major problems.

Optional English SDH subtitles display in a white font.

Extras

No special features are included. It would be nice if this film hit Olive’s Signature line down the road.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not influenced DoBlu’s editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Click on the images below for full-resolution 1080P screenshots taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered during the process. Patreon supporters are able to access these screens early, view them as .pngs, and gain access to four Houdini exclusives.