Videodrone Classic: The 'Black Magic' of Orson Welles
Welles didn't direct this 1949 costume drama but his presence defines the film
"Black Magic" (Hen's Tooth), a 1949 gothic drama starring Orson Welles, is one of the best of Welles' films of the era that he didn't direct. The mid-budget costume drama from independent producer Edward Small, an adaptation of Alexander Dumas' novel "Joseph Balsamo," stars Welles as the 18th century hypnotist and charlatan Cagliosto, a gypsy showman who plies his talents as a magician and mesmerist into French high society to mastermind a charade involving a Marie Antoinette lookalike (Nancy Guild). But his endgame is more personal: vengeance against the aristocrat who murdered his parents in front of his eyes.
Even fans of Welles know of his tendency to theatrical flamboyance in such roles but he's more restrained here, saving his theatrics for the Cagliostro's performance for the crowds, be they sideshow rabble or court aristocrats. His simmering obsession, however, makes him riveting throughout, and it's hard not too root for his scheme when his target is the corrupt aristocracy of France in a culture on the verge of revolution. It's his cruel control over the innocent lookalike that damns him in this story.