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Quicker Than The Eye
(1989)

Director: Nicolas Gessner   
Cast:
Ben Gazzara, Mary Crosby, Catherine Jarrett


Years ago, there was a musical group that sang in one of their songs, "Ho ho ho, it's magic, you know. Never believe it's not so." Magic may be a good thing to think about, but if you ask me, it doesn't exist. After all, it wasn't long after this song hit the radio that this group disappeared and was never heard of again. I guess I am a person who thinks kind of cynically these days. It wasn't always this way - when I was much younger, I believed that there was such a thing as magic. I remember once when my father showed a card trick to me. It was that old routine about four thieves (represented by Jacks) sneaking into the bottom of a building (the rest of the card stack), yet at the climax of the trick, all four of the Jacks would escape by the roof of the "building", having appeared seemingly by magic. I was amazed by the trick, and I wanted my father to demonstrate more magic, though as it turned out, this trick was the only one he knew. Also when I was young, there was a time when my family went to a department store, and there was a magician demonstrating various tricks to a captive audience of children. I stayed there while my parents shopped and watched the magician's various tricks. Imagine my thrill when he asked for a volunteer from the audience, and of all the hands that went up he picked me! He had earlier demonstrated this mini-guillotine device that chopped a cigarette in half, and he asked me to put my finger into the device. I should have been cautious, but I was curious instead, and put my finger in. The mini blade went down... and I pulled out my intact finger.

Just like the earlier trick that my father had demonstrated to me, I was amazed by the magician's trick. Naturally, I wanted to know how both of these people had pulled off their tricks, but at the time I was denied the opportunity. I think not knowing how they did it made me, at that young age, think that there really was something called magic, and that there were powers that could make an ordinary person superhuman. But as time went by after that point, it didn't take me long to think cynically in that area. For one thing, the harsh side of life would occasionally come up in my life, and that made the idea of magic seem like a fairy tale. Also, the various scientific books that I read didn't indicate that there was anything that could be considered magic. And in a couple of the many other kind of books I read as a child, I did find out not only how my father pulled off that card trick, but how that magician didn't slice off my finger. And according to the books, they were basic and beginner magic tricks, nothing fancy at all. Though part of me was satisfied to find out how the tricks were done, I was disappointed with this reminder that there was really nothing that could be called magic. But what really soured me towards the art of magic was that it didn't take long for magicians to drive me nuts. I knew it was some sort of illusion, but how did they do it? Nowadays, when I see a magician like Criss Angel on TV pull off one of his stunts, I am not amazed by what I see - I have feelings of frustration instead. I want to know.

So you can imagine that when I have the opportunity to learn about how a magician does a magic trick, I grab it. Several years ago on TV there were a few specials with "The Masked Magician", who would demonstrate a magic trick and then subsequently show how he did it - you can imagine Quicker Than The Eyejust how much I enjoyed all of those specials, as well as hearing reports that magicians were outraged that their tricks were being revealed. While I'm in such a good mood thinking about these angry magicians, I will reveal how one famous magic trick was done in the hope of personally angering one magician. Remember when David Copperfield supposedly made the Statue Of Liberty disappear? Well, the stage and the audience were all on a giant rotating platform. When the curtain closed on view of the statue, and Copperfield spoke his mumbo-jumbo, the entire area would slowly rotate to be pointing at another direction, so the statue would not be in sight when the curtain opened. Anyway, by this point you may be wondering why I decided to review a movie that deals with magic. Well, I have observed over the years that often when a movie deals with magicians, you get information about just how magicians do their tricks. Here's the plot description of Quicker Than The Eye that was on the back of its video box: "Ben Norell (Gazzara, Voyage Of The Damned) is a master magician invited to perform for world leaders at a peace summit high in the Swiss Alps. A group of terrorists, disguised as diplomats, are scattered amongst the audience. The terrorists have an act of their own, they plan to make a foreign leader disappear... permanently."

The plot description continues with the following: "Magic turns to mayhem and Ben is caught in the crossfire as the assassination plot unfolds. It's going to take more than the Swiss Armed Forces to corner the criminals... it's going to take magic!" I must admit that when I read this plot description when I found this movie at my local used video store, my expectations were pretty high. I figured that if this intriguing premise could attract an old pro like Gazzara, the movie would probably be something special. Unfortunately, that was not the case; the people who made the movie may have had the best of intentions, but much of what they constructed here was not very well thought out. I'll start with the Swiss setting. With Switzerland not being the setting for a lot of movies, I thought this setting would give the movie a fresh look. But Switzerland in this movie looks pretty miserable. It appears that the movie was not shot in the bright sun-drenched spring or summer, but in the autumn; the sky is always severely overcast, and the fog in the background spoils shots of the majestic mountains. But even if the weather had been better, it wouldn't have helped the movie that much. The movie is constantly shot in a curious way, one that suggests that the filmmakers were hampered by a low budget. There are almost no shots where the camera has been pulled back to give us a good look at the surroundings. The camera is almost always pulled forward to give a close look at the action, and there is a frequently cramped feeling to whatever is going on at any moment. It feels unnatural and hastily set up and shot.

The apparent low budget hurts the movie in a number of ways during the course of the running time. There's one scene where someone fires machine gun bullets in order to open a locked door, but we never see the damage done to the door as it happens or when the door is seen again a few steps away. There's also, for the most part, no musical score, so scenes that may have had a bit more suspense with some background music play in a more flat way instead. These may seem to be minor problems, but the movie still fails because of much deeper reasons. It doesn't seem that anyone involved behind the scenes was trying very hard to create the best possible product under the circumstances. The screenplay, for one thing, feels like a very early draft instead of one that has been thought of and rewritten enough times to squeeze any problems out. You might be thinking, after reading the plot description, that Gazzara's character finds himself in trouble after a reasonable amount of time has passed (maybe half an hour), and spends the rest of the movie using his knowledge to unwrap himself out of this mess. But in this screenplay, the execution of the assassination plan doesn't happen until more than two-thirds of the movie has played out. And when Gazzara's character finds himself on the run and having to prove his innocence, the focus of the movie is surprisingly not on his character. After this point, he's offscreen for a significant amount of the remaining running time, and as for his struggle to prove his innocence, viewers will probably be surprised that he actually doesn't have to do that much.

But in the first hour or so of the movie, before all that assassination-related stuff comes in, Quicker Than The Eye has already done a lot of script-related decisions that are very questionable. Some viewers may object to the fact that the nearly 60 year-old Gazzara is shown to have an intimate relationship with his much younger stage assistant (played by Crosby, from Ice Pirates). I could accept this, having come across several solid (and real) May/December relationships over the years. However, Gazzara's character is also shown to be a womanizer despite the relationship, and is shown several times to be putting on the charm on the female manager of the hotel he's staying at. This is kind of off-putting, not exactly helping to make his character a sympathetic one. He also does stuff like using his sleight-of-hand skills to do stuff like steal the car keys of a romantic rival, or even (for a lark) stealing the gun of the police inspector who is in charge of security for the peace talks happening at the hotel. This character is somewhat redeemed by Gazarra's performance. It helps that he actually looks like the kind of professional magician who makes a living touring from club to club, hotel to hotel. But Gazarra also puts some warmth into his performance, and he actually seems to be enjoying himself when doing various magic tricks. He is clearly doing some of the magic tricks completely by himself, but more often than not his character's magic-doing is ruined by simply stopping the camera, adjusting stuff between shots, and restarting the camera. And dammit, we never really learn how any of the magic tricks are done! If the rest of the movie had been better, I probably wouldn't have cared. But it isn't, so I do care - a lot.

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See also: Paper Mask, Retroactive, Safe House

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