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The Illusion of Cinematic Crime: What Heist Movies Share With Magic

The Illusion of Cinematic Crime: What Heist Movies Share With Magic: Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Focus

Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Focus

The Heist Movie is the great, unsung genre of cinema. Often grouped under “thrillers” or “action movies,” in the purest sense they are neither, and operate under a very strict and particular structure that uniquely exploits one of the most compelling features of the movies – the tension between what is shown and what is not shown.

The Heist Movie, in its traditional form, asks the audience to become both an accomplice and a mark. Films like Ocean’s 11, The Italian Job and The Score spend their first few acts allowing the audience insight into how the job will be done. We are introduced to the characters as they are assembled for their skill sets, and the planning is carefully laid out before us. That knowledge is crucial to the tension created when, inevitably, the plan goes off the rails due to accident or betrayal, and our characters seem trapped and doomed. Catharsis is achieved just before the end of the movie, when it’s revealed that there was an element to the plan of which we, the audience, were kept unaware. What’s more, this is the crucial element that allows our heroes to achieve total (or at least partial) victory. The success of the Heist Movie lies entirely on how well that element is concealed within plain sight, and how convincingly it is later revealed.

In other words, the success lies in how effectively the movie is able to fool us without creating any hard feelings. The movie brought us in and played fair: we should have seen it all along. The movie asks us to be impressed by its ability to make us chumps, and the more completely it does this, the more completely we enjoy it. It’s an odd, antagonistic relationship based entirely on deception. Why do we love it so much?

It may be because the release of dramatic tension is such a joy we can’t help but be amazed by it, even at our own expense. I used the word “catharsis” deliberately. At the end of the heist movie, all the pieces fit and everything is made clear. The fact that we got to play both sides of the mystery (unlike in, say, a detective story where we only solve the crime, not participate in it) heightens our investment. We are complicit, then, in our own deception. It is very much like watching the performance of a master magician: “watch very carefully,” he says. “You will pick the card. You will put it back. You will be there for every step, and I will fool you anyway.”

As a comic-book writer and student of sleight-of-hand, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the confluence of magic and sequential art. The connections are so deep and entangled that I’ve written articles on them, and even lectured about them at conventions. The connections between cinema and magic are more cosmetic, but no less worth considering. Both are experiences audiences gather for with the expectation to be amazed by spectacle. Both are concerned with establishing a false, yet completely convincing reality, and then bending the rules of that reality as far as they can go without breaking. It’s no surprise then that one of the masters of the Heist Movie, David Mamet, has had a long partnership with Ricky Jay, one of our most famous and respected magicians. The art of the con, and cinema’s possibilities as its delivery system, appeals to both men’s sensibilities.

For Mamet it’s the toxic masculinity that can manifest in acts of persuasion, but it’s also the great webbed intricacies of deceptive language that cloak motive. After all, people’s emotional agendas are often revealed by the way they chose to disguise them. You are being told one thing, but the truth is right in front of your face if you look carefully enough. This tension is what creates the thrill that underpins all of magic.

But this is also where the art forms of magic and cinema diverge. When Danny Ocean manages to rob three casinos despite the fact that it looked to us as though his plan had failed, we require an explanation, and that explanation has to jibe with the events that we saw go down. In the movies, the expectation that “the truth is right in front of your face” must be fulfilled. In magic, it is the exact opposite. There is no explanation for the re-appearance of your chosen card, and there is no way to reconstruct where it came from. The truth was never in front of your face, and the impossibility of the event is what gives the performance its power. What is thrilling and sublime in a live performance would challenging and abstract in a movie. So despite the phrase’s common usage, “movie magic” is really anything but.

Many film buffs would likely trace that phrase back to Georges Melies. Best known today for his iconic silent-era film A Trip to the Moon, he was an illusionist who famously brought principles of magic and stagecraft into cinema, popularizing the idea of what came to be called “special effects.”

But Melies didn’t actually bring the art of magic to movies. His effects were purely cinematic from the very beginning. He developed matte paintings and miniatures that created forced-perspectives in the 2D image, and judiciously employed what he famously coined the “stop trick” – halting the film in the camera and adding or removing elements of the scene before starting it again, to make objects seem to appear or vanish. He used multiple exposures, time-lapse photography and cross-fades, but he never used actual magic as it was performed on stage at the time.

Melies didn’t bring the magician’s actual craft to cinema, he brought the magician’s mind. The magician’s ability to recognize the cognitive patterns and assumptions audiences brings with them to a performance, and the ways those perceptions can be manipulated with the tools at hand.

The manipulation of perception and expectation is the real crossover between magic and movies. For while filmmakers are able to control all of time and space to direct an audience’s attention, they do so in a totally controlled environment: the set, the editing room, the mixing stage. The magician, on the other hand, operates in real life, in real-time. This is key to the thrill of the performance — the ability of the magician to influence and manipulate his audience without any tools other than his hands and his mind.

This also inspires to the magician’s most commonly heard career advice from amazed audience members: “You could make a lot of money with that in Vegas.” The implication being, if you have the skill and power to fool people in such an amazing way, it’s a short step from there to criminal enterprise. This assumption is the essence of the confluence of magic, cinema and con-artistry. All of them make judicious, hostile uses of the audience’s imagination.

A savvy magician is like any skilled performer – able to incorporate their audience’s reactions into the experience, even if those reactions are edgy feelings of mistrust. So you’ll find a lot of sleight-of-hand practitioners leaning into flim-flam man calumnies because, hey, it’s cool to seem dangerous. Ricky Jay and “professional pickpocket” Apollo Robins were both asked, in separate New Yorker profiles, if there was any real chicanery in their pasts. Both men responded with provocative vagueness. After all, it’s not what you see, it’s what you think you see.

That’s not to say that all magicians who claim to have shady pasts are liars (as an honorary member of the community, I have to preserve some of the mystique.) And indeed, there are famous figures in the history of magic who were actual con artists, like Alexander The Man Who Knows, or Soapy Smith. Just as in cinema, there is legitimate crossover between magic and con-artistry. It’s just far less than what appears obvious.

But magic, movies, con-artistry — the art of conceal and reveal — it all seems like the same thing to our perceptions. And that, ultimately, is why it all works so well.


Mike Costa writes comic books and video games in Los Angeles. He has also contributed articles to Genie and Magic Magazine, and has lectured on pop-culture’s confluence with the history of sleight-of-hand at magic conventions.

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