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Black Magic


Black Magic (1949), starring Orson Welles, Nancy Guild, Akim Tamiroff

Review of Black Magic

Orson Welles‘ performance in Black Magic is absolutely riveting.  It’s a must-see performance.  He plays the role of the charlatan Cagliostro with gusto, and style.  Welles moves the audience from sympathy for the character to disgust for some of his actions, and back to sympathy.  The other performers also do an excellent job, but it’s Welles performance that makes Black Magic a must-see movie.

Orson Welles as the gypsy Joseph Balsamo, aka. Count Cagliostro

Orson Welles as the gypsy Joseph Balsamo, aka. Count Cagliostro

People have forgotten that Orson Welles, in addition to being an actor, writer, and producer, was also a magician.  Black Magic gives him an opportunity to use those skills on screen.  It’s a bravura performance.  Early in the film he does stage magic as part of a “thieving gypsy” band selling snake oil, and he does wonderfully.  Later, he shows off his sleight of hand skills …. And the look on his fellow actor’s face is priceless.

Finally, it should be pointed out that Black Magic takes massive liberties with the history of Cagliostro.  It’s riveting, entertaining – but in no way factual.

One other trivia point.  It’s clear that Stan Lee borrowed much of the backstory here for his iconic villain, Doctor Doom.   Both characters are gypsies, whose mothers were murdered for the crime of witchcraft.  Both had great tribulations in their childhood, and grew up to be brilliant, controlling, charismatic villains.

Synopsis of Black Magic

Nancy Guild in the dual role of Lorenza and Marie Antoinette

Nancy Guild in the dual role of Lorenza and Marie Antoinette

Novelist Alexander Dumas tells his writer-son of Joseph Balsamo (Orson Welles).  He was a gypsy boy in southern France who was embittered when his parents were wrongfully hanged.  He himself was tortured by the order of Viscount de Montagne. Years later, the man, a carnival charlatan, attracts the attention of Dr. Mesmer.  Mesmer is a pioneer in the study of hypnotism. Balsamo rejects Mesmer’s plea that he use his power for healing.  Instead uses it to seek wealth and fame. He changes his name to Count Cagliostro, and achieves fame throughout Europe by mixing hypnotism with mysticism and showmanship.

He is called to cure a girl, Lorenza (Nancy Guild), held by De Montagne.   She resembles Marie Antoinette, wife of the heir to the throne of France.  Cagliostro decides to join De Montagne and Madame du Barry.  In a plot to seize the power by discrediting the future Queen. Cagliostro achieves his revenge on De Montagne by persuading him to hang himself. He makes Lorenza marry him but can never make her love him. Her love is for Gilbert de Rezel, the captain of Marie Antoinette’s guard. In a dramatic court scene, Cagliostro’s power of hypnotism is turned against him by Dr. Mesmer.  And he is seen as a madman. His faithful gypsy friends, Giano (Akim Tamiroff)  and Zoraida, try to help him escape but he is killed by de Rezel in a roof-top duel

Editorial review of Black Magic courtesy of Amazon.com

Black Magic (aka Cagliostro) is a 1949 film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel Joseph Balsamo. It stars Orson Welles as the 18th-century master hypnotist and charismatic charlatan, Cagliostro. After his mother is executed for supposedly practicing witchcraft, young Joseph Balsamo is raised by gypsies. Under their tutelage, he perfects his skills performing magic tricks and selling snake oil in the gypsies’ traveling caravan show. Eventually, Balsamo meets Franz Mesmer, the famous hypnotist, who convinces Joseph he has even greater gifts which could heal the sick. But Joseph chooses a very different path assuming the name Cagliostro and embarking on a vendetta for power over the man who ordered his mother’s death.


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