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Black Magic

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Black Magic, starring Orson Welles, Nancy Guild, Akim Tamiroff
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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

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, 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, their mothers murdered for the crime of witchcraft.  Both had great tribulations in their childhood, and grew up to be brilliant, controlling, charismatic villains.


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. He became bitter when his parents were wrongfully hanged.  The Viscount de Montagne ordered him tortured. 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, Dr. Mesmer turns Cagliostro’s power of hypnotism against him.  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

Cast of characters

  • Orson Welles (The Stranger) … Joseph Balsamo aka Count Cagliostro
  • Nancy Guild (Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man) … Marie Antoinette / Lorenza
  • Akim Tamiroff (Aanastasia) … Gitano
  • Frank Latimore (Shock) … Gilbert de Rezel
  • Valentina Cortese (The Barefoot Contessa 1954) … Zoraida
  • Margot Grahame … Mme. du Barry
  • Stephen Bekassy (Beyond the Time Barrier) … Viscount de Montagne
  • Berry Kroeger (Atlantis: The Lost Continent) … Alexandre Dumas, Sr.
  • Gregory Gaye (Ninotchka) … Chambord / Monk
  • Raymond Burr (Godzilla: King of the Monsters) … Alexandre Dumas, Jr.
  • Charles Goldner … Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer
  • Lee Kresel … King Louis XVI / Innkeeper
  • Robert Atkins … King Louis XV

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