The Magus (1968) ***

Mind-games and unreliable narrators give this considerable contemporary appeal. Throw in Anthony Quinn back in Zorba the Greek (1964) territory and Michael Caine as a lothario in the Alfie (1965) mold plus Candice Bergen (Soldier Blue, 1970) in preppy mode and you have nothing short of ideal casting.

Nicholas (Michael Caine), escaping a failed romance with Anne (Anna Karina) by teaching English at the Lord Byron School on a Greek island, becomes entangled with millionaire Conchis (Anthony Quinn). The action primarily takes place on Conchis’s fabulous villa stuffed full of art treasures.  Conchis initially presents himself as a psychic who can summon up the past, namely in the shape of Lily (Candice Bergen) who talks and dresses like the young girl Conchis previously loved.

But every time Nicholas rumbles a ruse he is presented with a different version of Conchis’s self. These include a psychiatrist, conjurerer-up of the mythic past and Second World War  collaborator. All of these identities carry sufficient personal truth for Nicholas to doubt his doubts.

Is he the victim of some elaborate game, one which caused the mysterious death of his predecessor? Is he smart enough to expose the millionaire as a dangerous fantasist? Is Lily genuinely falling in love with him and will this be yet another romance which makes him feel trapped? Is he actually put on trial in front of the entire village or is that all a dream? Is Conchis intent on stripping him of his core identity? And if so, why?

It should have been a cracking film but somehow misses the target. In theory, this is because Michael Caine is miscast. Caine is usually in charge and here is anything but. But actually, flipping over an actor’s screen persona, especially this cocky one, works. You might keep on wishing the real Michael Caine would stand up, and the fact that he doesn’t gives the film its strength.

Anthony Quinn initially overdoes the flamboyance to the point of being hammy – what magician is not – but you can see the point of that when he turns into the sober mayor forced to deal with invading Germans during World War Two and faced with making life-or-death decisions. The general consensus is Candice Bergen is the weak link, but I’d challenge that too since she is playing a role, that of an easily-duped actress.

The main problem is the picture is loaded down with flashbacks. And all to do with the various reinventions of Conchis’s life. In keeping with the film’s style you are never sure how much of this is true. Caine’s character has little to do except ask questions. (A modern film would have him chasing after physical clues to uncover a riddle.) So it becomes very stagey, with Conchis like a frustrated teacher with an aberrant pupil.

Of all the misleading ads! This lost a fortune for Fox.

John Fowles adapted his 300,000-word cult novel, removing the bulk of the philosophizing, but not realizing that what works in a book, especially in the hands of a gifted narrator, is not so easily translated onto the screen. For the adaptation of his previous bestseller The Collector (1965), director William Wyler brought in screenwriters to make the book work as a film.

Either screenwriters balked at the problems of dealing with a masterpiece or Fowles insisted on writing the screen version or director Guy Green (Pretty Polly/A Matter of Innocence, 1967) believed him the best person to reconstitute his work. Quinn, rather than Caine, has the movie’s pivotal sequence, forced into an action on a par with Sophie’s Choice (1982) and it might have helped if that element had been brought in sooner.

As it is, the movie is no more than interesting when it should have been fascinating.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

2 thoughts on “The Magus (1968) ***”

  1. I find this film, and the book, interesting and fascinating. In fact, for all the flaws you catalogue, it’s one of my all time favorites. Fowler reprised his book, and I do think this could be remade in almost any format. The deliberate collapse of the narrative is very now, although it was also very 1968…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read the book again and that made me want to see the film again. Loved the book. What a fabulous narrator Fowles is. But the film cannot find a cinematic correlative for his work. It would be an ideal six-parter these days.exhibits none of his skills.


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