Orson Welles in ‘Black Magic’ on Fandor

Akim Tamiroff and Orson Welles in the 1948 'Black Magic.'

Black Magic (1949), a gothic drama starring Orson Welles, is one of the best of Welles’ films of the era that he didn’t direct. The mid-budget costume drama from independent producer Edward Small, an adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ novel “Joseph Balsamo,” stars Welles as the 18th century hypnotist and charlatan Cagliostro, a gypsy showman who plies his talents as a magician and mesmerist into French high society to mastermind a charade involving a Marie Antoinette lookalike (Nancy Guild). But his endgame is more personal: vengeance against the aristocrat who murdered his parents in front of his eyes.

Even fans of Welles know of his tendency to theatrical flamboyance in such roles but he’s more restrained here, saving his theatrics for the Cagliostro’s performance for the crowds, be they sideshow rabble or court aristocrats. His simmering obsession, however, makes him riveting throughout, and it’s hard not to root for his scheme when his target is the corrupt aristocracy of France in a culture on the verge of revolution. It’s his cruel control over the innocent lookalike—and his growing megalomania—that damns him in this story. In other circumstances, he might be the hero. Here he’s a 17th century Rasputin who becomes just as corrupt as those he targets and Welles leans in on the vengeful side of the gypsy outcast who infiltrates and attacks the aristocracy. His burning glare says it all.

Gregory Ratoff directs but the influence of Welles can be felt beyond his mesmerizing presence, in the shadowy style and sensibility of the film. At least in the scenes featuring Welles. Welles buddy Akim Tamiroff co-stars as his gypsy partner, Valentina Cortese the gypsy woman who loves the obsessed Cagliostro, and Raymond Burr has a small role in the framing sequence as the audience to author Alexander Dumas. The film has also been released under the name Cagliostro.

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About Sean Axmaker

Sean Axmaker is a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, The Seattle Weekly, Keyframe, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org). He was a film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years and a longtime home video columnist for IMDb and MSN Movies, and his work has appeared in Indiewire, Today.com, The Stranger, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, Filmfax, Psychotronic Video, and "The Scarecrow Video Guide." You can find links to all of this and more on his shamelessly self-promoting blog at http://www.seanax.com/

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