The film itself is based on the 1908 Somerset Maugham novel of the same name and the author apparently received a snippy letter from Aleister Crowley saying that Maugham had ripped off his life story. This is all well and good - I haven't read the book - but as far as the movie version is concerned there's nothing to that claim other than the fact that the film hinges on a master magician. In fact, despite the well-known "going to Hell" sequence which we've seen so many stills from, the film itself to my mind is actually more like a version of "TRILBY" (or "SVENGALI" as it's more widely known nowadays) with chunks of "FRANKENSTEIN" and "HAXAN" thrown in. Oh, and a lengthy carnival/circus sequence foreshadows the later Universal version of "MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE" with Bela Lugosi's Dr. Mirakle as well as an operation theme which foretells some of the Lugosi/Karloff co-starrer "THE RAVEN". A sculptor Margaret (played by the director's wife Alice Terry) is carving an elaborate gothic statue of a satyr when the damn thing collapses on top of her. The young woman is paralysed. Margaret's uncle Dr. Porhoet (Firmin Gemier) pleads with surgeon Arthur Burdon (Ivan Petrovich) to cure her and he does so. Apparently Dr. Jack Shepherd was busy. The lady regains her mobility and the two fall in love (all of which will seem familiar if you've seen the later film "THE RAVEN"). However, the operation has been observed by an unhinged-looking mage named Oliver Haddo (the great Paul Wegener) who is interested in conducting insane mystical experiments to create life. While monkeying around in the library, Haddo finds an ancient magical tome which informs him that he can create life by using the heart's blood of a fair young maiden. Guess who fits THAT bill, gang!(Here we have some foreshadowing of Robert Florey's MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE to come) Haddo makes a pest of himself trying to win over Margaret; when this doesn't appear to be working too quickly he resorts to hypnotism (we're in SVENGALI territory now) until the young woman loses all her will power and even consents to marry the magician. Uncle Poerhoet and Dr. Burdon trail the couple from place to place - the couple spend some time in Monte Carlo cheating the casinos with Haddo's mind power - until Haddo takes his "wife" (in name only, we are assured -- a satanic black magician would certiainly never dream of forcing himself on a hypnotised nubile blonde! What's wrong with you?!?) back to his tower laboratory (a huge influence on James Whale's later FRANKENSTEIN film) where he intends to create life with the aid of some convenient fair maiden heart blood.
Of course, the basic storyline follows the SVENGALI story skeleton fairly closely with the added-on Frankenstein-meets-alchemy creation of life theme. The justly celebrated "Hell" scene is in fact a vision hypnotically conjured up by Haddo for Margaret's benefit. And it is, of course, the showcase (however brief) of the entire film. Tinted devil red, the sequence features the famous prancing satyr performance of Stowitts and he cavorts practically naked around the Dantean sets. Wegener, who is one of the few actors who needs no "horror makeup" to be truly disturbing and frightening, leers demonically with his hair squeezed into to horn-like shapes. The sequence can't help but remind anyone of Benjamin Christensen's HAXAN or WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES. The tower laboratory set, as noted, was apparently studied by James Whale as he prepared his production of FRANKENSTEIN for Universal and one can certainly see the influence of Ingram's film on that later classic. Don't think for one minute, however, that the rest of the film not featuring "Hell" or the lab are tedious and draggy because they are not. The opening sequence in the artists studio involving Margaret's saturnine sculpture sets the tone right away with interesting visuals and characters. In fact, another female artist in the studio is working on a painting of a sunset (or is it a sunrise? -- she can't seem to make up her addled mind) which I'm dying to hang on my wall! As stated, the film rockets along and barely drags at all; perhaps a teeny bit during the requisite romantic love scenes but these are kept thankfully short and do not try one's patience in the slightest. A rarity in such an early film; movies of the 1930's could've learned a thing or two from the brevity of Ingram's love scenes. They are slow death for a horror film and THE MAGICAN thankfully avoids that pitfall. The performance of Alice Terry as our heroine is above average and one really feels for her emotionally; she avoids the stagey "silent film acting style" and brings an emotional depth to the part. No nepotism in her casting, Mr. Director sir! Well done! Petrovich and Gemier are adequate and watchable. Of course, the spectacular Paul Wegener (DER GOLEM's daddy) gives a wonderfully bombastic theatrical performance which suits the character of the black magician Oliver Haddo. Wegener's face was naturally even more satyr-like than Jack Palance and he actually looks scarier here than when buried under all that Golem makeup which frankly got in the way of his demonic visage. The photography throughout the film is masterful, painterly and dynamic; nothing less could be expected from veteran cinematographer John F. Seitz. And the direction by Rex Ingram, as I've said, is the briskest of the brisk keeping things moving along so well that the film seems to last far shorter than its actual running time. As a true classic of the silent horror film era, THE MAGICIAN can hold its own amongst the best of them.