The Escape Artist

A 1982 film, directed by Caleb Deschanel, written by Melissa Mathison, and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. It was released by Orion Pictures. It stars Griffin O’Neal (Ryan’s son) as Danny Masters, Raul Julia (he of The Addams Family) as Stu Quinones, the mayor’s son, and Teri Garr as Arlene, Stu’s ditzy girlfriend. Desi Arnaz played the mayor, Joan Hackett was Aunt Sibyl, and Jackie Coogan was the Magic Shop Owner.

What’s it all about? Well – Danny Masters is the son of ‘the world’s greatest escape artist, after Houdini’. He was shot, though (before the events in the film take place) trying to escape from a police cell. Danny is clearly devastated by this loss, and the questions surrounding his father’s death, and tries hard to emulate his father’s successes. We see him chain himself to a weight and throw himself into a tank of water, only to be unable to escape and have to be dragged out, choking, by his uncle.

Danny can also pick locks, impressively quickly. This skill catches the attention of the Mayor’s son, Stu. Danny picks Stu’s pocket and finds a wallet full of money. The cash though, is counterfeit, and the Mayor himself is behind the scam. Together Stu and Danny conceive a plan to get rid of the money, showcase Danny’s talents, and make the police look stupid at the same time. Danny challenges the police, in front of newspaper reporters and photographers, to lock him in a cell, stripped of his clothes, and leave him there. He promises that he can escape.

And of course he does – deftly and quickly. Before he can start though, a guard comes, unlocks his cell door and takes him to the door of solitary confinement. Through the window he can see Stu, beaten up, bloody and bruised. The guard puts Danny back in his own cell saying that he will return in an hour to teach him a ‘lesson in humility’. Clearly the sight of Stu is supposed to be taken as a threat of what will happen to Danny should he escape.

Danny leaves the cell, finds his clothes, retrieves the rest of his lockpicks from where he has stashed them and makes his way to the Mayor’s office. There he breaks into the safe (a superbly tense scene) replaces the wallet and makes his get away. Once on the street, he finds a phone box, and calls the FBI to report the counterfeiting.

Back at Stu’s place, Danny finds the Mayor’s son furious that Danny has called the cops (which wasn’t part of the plan) and, taking a knife, lunges at Danny. Stu chases Danny out into the street – Danny manages to escape by hiding in a mailbox: Stu is arrested for walking around the streets carrying a knife and talking to mailboxes.

And is it good? No. It’s great. And for a variety of reasons.

To begin with, it’s a very unfocussed plot. You could be forgiven for thinking, half an hour in, that nothing much is happening. But you don’t care: the characters are so engaing, Stu so brooding, Arlene so scatty (her breaking open lobsters at a huge and completely unattended party is excellent), and Danny so enigmatic and engaging. When the plot does kick in, it’s gripping in the extreme – the whole prison breakout and safe busting is as tense as it gets. The unfocussed plot, then, is a great way to build up to the extreme and pinpoint focus of later scenes. It is also indicative of the confidence of the director – the film is a joy to watch simply because Deschanel has faith in his piece – and it’s his directorial debut, too.

This confidence spills over into the film’s themes and central images. The pictures of escape artists, the man beaten up in a prison cell, the boy chaining himself to a weight and throwing himself into a glass tank, the wallet full of counterfeit notes are all thoughtful, intelligent and many layered . This is certainly not a run of the mill film, with tired cinematographic clichés and worn out didacticism. We leave the film thinking about a son’s responsibilities to his father (both Stu and Danny have the same kind of problem – Danny can’t be his father, and Stu can’t escape from his), about personal freedom and liberty (trying to prove that you’re free of the pressure exerted by the memory of your father by trying to escape from a water tank is moving and upsetting), and about the magic around us in everyday life. And this last, for me, is what sets the film apart from every other.

The film has a stunning moment of magic realism. Whilst Danny is trying to escape from the cell complex, he suddenly sees his father in front of him. The colours fade to sepia, the guards vanish, and Danny watches his father’s murder played out in front of him. He hears the guard’s voice and turns. We hear the gun shot and see him fall, slowly to the floor. Danny approaches to find the body covered by a white sheet; in a spine-tingling moment, he levitates the body and the sheet. When it is waist height, he lifts back the sheet to show the face of his father. He recovers it, and pulls the sheet away, vanishing the corpse in the process. Thrilling stuff – and a beautiful metaphor for a son growing up and being free of his father.

At the end of film, Danny emerges from the mailbox. It’s early morning and the city is just waking up. The pavements are wet with recent rain, but glinting in the morning sun. As Danny walks (into the sunrise, rather than the sunset), paper flowers spring from his heal and lie on the pavement. He doesn’t notice them. The music does its thing.

Marvellous, marvellous stuff. And quite breathtaking.

Cast and crew information in this write up come from

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