Classic Rediscovery: The 'Black Magic' of Orson Welles
Welles didn't direct this 1949 costume 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.
Gregory Ratoff directs, but the influence of Welles can be felt beyond his mesmerizing presence, in the shadowy style and sensibility of the film. At least in the scenes featuring Welles. Welles buddy Akim Tamiroff co-stars as his gypsy partner, Valentina Cortese the gypsy woman who loves the obsessed Cagliotro, and Raymond Burr has a small role in the framing sequence as the audience to author Alexander Dumas.
Hen's Tooth's has a released a number of films from Edward Small. Like those, this is mastered from a good by unrestored 35mm print, with minor but insistent grit, pits, and surface scratches running throughout, but a strong image with good contrast and sharpness. No supplements.