Straitjackets come up a lot in Harry Houdini’s movies. And when not getting tossed into a padded cell or raging river, his adventurer/inventor/conspiracy-unraveller is being lashed to an electric chair or detained next to a spreading puddle of acid. Write what you know, I guess.
A new Kino set collects the escapist silent-screen forays of the talented “self-liberator,” born Erik Weisz in Hungary, the son of a rabbi. Flush from the vaudeville circuit, Houdini entered acting and producing in his 40s, later than performers like Chaplin or Keaton. But his own ventures lost money, and his stage presence never translated to a screen persona (despite the Expressionist potential of a bulging-brain head and swooping eyebrows).
One success, Master Mystery, pits the dextrous illusionist against a monopolist and an automaton that compensates for a Stay Puft man gait with unstinting evil. The 15-episode serial entertains with the form’s drawn-out twists and cliffhangers (revived by the likes of Lost). Houdini’s heroes earn (and embody) truth, justice and plot resolution with “real” escapist chops.
The Handcuff King loosens up in Terror Island, working from a nifty submarine on a Pacific treasure hunt. In Man from Beyond he gets soulful as a man freed from ice after 100 years who seeks his reincarnated lost love. (Oddly, Houdini won fame for debunking spirit mediums and feuding with credulous pal Arthur Conan Doyle.)
Two years before his 1926 death, as Kino’s performance clips show, the star is still doing upside-down straitjacket demos for packed city squares — suspended and squirming like a bat trying to reach an itch. Houdini’s semi-simulated acts follow a long aesthetic tradition: partial artifice trumpeting total authenticity.