It Was the Look on Their Faces

The Prestige (2006)

illustration by Tom Ralston

My passion is equal to the task,” says Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), known as “the Great Danton” when performing, or simply as “Angier” to rival magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). When Angier says this, he’s narrating from his own diary, as he’ll continue to do throughout The Prestige, as will Borden. Both men trade perspectives, each having stolen or been gifted the other’s diary, and the split understanding of how the converging events of their vengeful lives intertwine makes up a good portion of the tension in the narrative. 

Here, Angier writes of his determination to know the secret to the Transported Man, one of Borden’s best tricks, pulled off with a method so beautifully simple that Angier is unable to understand it. So, instead of trying to build a different, better act, Angier simply intends to steal it. Such is his way, the flipside to his rival’s coin—a born showman with no imagination, while Borden is a born magician with no skill for marketing. 

The Prestige paints twin portraits of two men driven by ego, by an existential hole in their lives that won’t allow them to find satisfaction anywhere but on stage, whether that be in a theater or on the larger, invisible stage upon which history plays out. Fear of irrelevancy, fear of mediocrity, fear of death all drive Angier and Borden to horrific, murderous lengths to outwit one another. All the more unsettling, then, to understand Angier’s words, a mantra that is nearly whispered, as is so much of the film’s narration, each voiceover delivered with the timbre and weight of a secret, of something so personal, it might as well have been said to no one. My passion is equal to the task.

In 2016, a television special called Beyond Magic featured David Blaine performing the infamous bullet catch, a staple of extremity for magicians since at least the 1600s. A magician faces a gun pointed directly at them and appears to pull the fired bullet from the air. In reality, the performer palms the bullet, while the pistol releases gunpowder without a live round. Story goes that more than a dozen magicians have died trying it. This was actually Blaine’s second time performing the bullet catch since 2009, but there was no illusion in either instance. 

Instead, through a marriage of engineering, sheer nerve, and luck, Blaine used a fortified mouth guard holding a steel shot glass to stop a real bullet fired from a rifle. In 2009, the rifle was fired by one of Blaine’s friends. In 2016, Blaine himself fired the rifle, the trigger tied with a string that he held in one hand, while the other held a small mirror. A laser sight was affixed to the top of the gun so that he could judge whether or not the aim was correct before pulling the string. For many reasons other than the obvious, the bullet catch in its standard sleight-of-hand form is a risky, even stupid trick to perform. But to a magician like Blaine, whose acts often boast impressive yet ridiculous feats of endurance that aren’t illusions but instead illustrations of physical and mental fortitude, there’s less room for fakery. Danger takes the place of suspense or wonder. Rather than shroud the catch in mystery, Blaine tells you exactly how he’s going to attempt it. That way, if he succeeds, you’ll be relieved. And if he dies, you won’t be surprised. 

The Transported Man is simple: two doors stand on a stage, about 10 feet apart, facing the audience. A man goes in one door, shuts it, and comes out the other in a matter of seconds. Maybe a ball is bounced from the first door to the other, with the same man appearing in time to catch it; maybe a hat is tossed into the air like a football. The Prestige takes its time getting to a full illustration of the trick. We hear its name—see the envy and obsession it inspires in Angier to steal it—well before we actually know what it is. By the time we do, Angier is dead and one of the Bordens is on death row for his supposed murder (though if you’ve never seen the film, you don’t actually learn that the Bordens are twins until the very end) (sorry). The possibility is teased that whatever Angier found in his travels to duplicate the Transported Man not only far exceeds the skills and ingenuity needed to fool an audience, but is actually the real thing.

All of this is folded into a narrative of braided flashbacks. The diaries of Angier and Borden progress in linear fashion, going forward in time while constantly rehashing the past. One man does something, the other explains his own reaction. As such, the structure of The Prestige is as much a result of subjective emotional memory and record-correcting as it is of authorial obfuscation. The only constant is Mr. Cutter (Michael Caine), an ingénieur—or stage engineer—who acts as the magicians’ voice of reason, and also the film’s third, arguably most talented illusionist.

When Borden, locked in his prison cell, reads from Angier’s notebook, he is privy to what he believes to be the innermost thoughts of a rival he has always felt superior to. In his own way, he’s also looking for answers. Angier had been a man haunted by inadequacy, living in the shadow of tragedy. His wife, a magician’s assistant to Angier and Borden, drowned in a glass tank during a failed escape act. It’s this same kind of tank that Borden discovers Angier drowning in at the beginning of the film, when Borden snoops backstage during the Great Danton’s final performance. 

Because The Prestige is a Christopher Nolan film, the narrative is increasingly fractured by time until the pieces form a ribbon that folds around and back in on itself. The scenes we watch come out of sequence, though never out of logic. Nolan is a filmmaker whose career is built upon narratives that accumulate complexity over time rather than featuring any true complexity themselves. In the films that are considered his most challenging or structurally complicated, mise-en-scène functions like a legend on a map, a utilitarian implementation of form that can sometimes rob his work of warmth or feeling. An image or scene will be shown, the “X” marked in a fictional territory whose geography we’ve yet to traverse, though we often understand this given image or scene to be taking place well after the chronological beginning of the story. From there, the film snakes its way back toward that first scene, and sometimes we realize that we were primed to understand where we started all along. 

However, Nolan’s temporal complexity is a result of brute force editing, and thus, upon first viewing, can result in a kaleidoscopic rush of emotion that feels unfinished, truncated. Once a layer is introduced—say, two cats dashing across a pile of black top hats, a foggy forest behind them—that layer stays put. The context for it might change and we might learn more about what came before, but the elements of the layer itself don’t alter. Of his 11 films thus far, only two, Memento and Inception, introduce subjective uncertainty or faulty memory as an element that might undo the tidiness of his cinematic puzzle boxes. Instead, the director employs discombobulation, business, the bombast of sound and scale to obscure the inner workings of his plot. Sometimes, this results in pleasingly abstract films, like his debut Following or the ambitiously operatic Interstellar. Sometimes, it amounts to noise, like The Dark Knight Rises or the recent Tenet

Which makes The Prestige the most effective synthesis of Nolan’s aesthetic tendencies. A film about two magicians, caught up in an age of burgeoning technological advancement and the death of an older generation of showmanship, duking it out to prove which is the better illusionist, presents all manner of opportunities for intricately arranged spectacle. Indeed, Nolan is conducting his own sleight of hand during The Prestige, one that, even when you know what to look for, works well because the point of the movie is not to be wowed by the method. 

“The secret impresses no one,” Borden says. 

“You won’t find [the secret] because you’re not really looking,” Cutter says. 

“No one cares about the man in the box,” Angier says. 

Rather, Nolan employs all the elements of an illusion to fool the audience into believing that they are going to be given a reasonable explanation for how his two protagonists did what they did, and that said explanation is the unlocked secret of the story. Really, Nolan tells you early on (“Are you watching closely?”) how Angier and Borden accomplish their tricks: twins, clones, both easy to spot and recognize once you’ve seen the film the first time. The reveal at the end, then, is not truly a surprise for what it uncovers. The point is not to go “Ahhh, I see,” as it so often is with Nolan. It’s to fully grasp the horror wrought by both men upon themselves and their loved ones, to turn our desire to understand the method of the trick inside out. The reason The Prestige might be Nolan’s greatest work is because he is not trying to outdo himself to prove his own cleverness to the audience. His structural logic gives way to the absence of any moral clarity, complexity that isn’t presented at the expense of depth. The twist becomes a vise. 

A 19th-century magician named Chung Ling Soo died performing a variation of the bullet catch he dubbed “Condemned to Death by the Boxers.” In the illusion, two guns were brought onto the stage by assistants dressed as Chinese Boxer insurrectionists. Audience members would inspect the bullets from each gun before the guns were fired at Soo, who appeared to catch them in midair. For several years, Soo had been in a public feud with another magician, Ching Ling Foo, who performed in London at a nearby theater. Like many magicians of the time, Foo had issued a challenge to anyone who could convincingly duplicate his act, the winner earning $1,000. Soo was familiar with Foo’s act after seeing several of his shows and felt confident that he could successfully match each illusion. But Soo had already lost a previous challenge to Foo, and so Foo refused to accept Soo’s request. In what seemed to be gross retaliation, Soo struck out on his own and copied Foo’s act nearly identically, becoming more famous than his rival. But his rival knew something the public didn’t. 

On the night of March 23, 1918, while performing the Boxer routine, some of the rigged gunpowder that was supposed to explode without propelling the bullet went off in the gun’s chamber, sending a bullet into Soo’s lung. Soo was known for never speaking during his act and only very little in public, almost always accompanied by an interpreter for interviews and other engagements. After being shot, Soo cried out, “Oh my God! Something’s happened! Lower the curtain!” Upon his death, the secret that his rival had always known—alongside many other magicians in London—was revealed: Soo was not Chinese, but a white American man named William Ellsworth Robinson, who’d adopted a persona heavily based on Foo. Soo’s alleged Chinese wife was really a white woman named Olive Path, who was never married to Robinson. For almost two decades, Robinson adopted formal Chinese attire, shaved his face, darkened his skin, and grew his hair into a queue to maintain the illusion.

Looking at images of Robinson in the guise of Soo now, it is more than a little ridiculous to think that anyone could have believed his ruse. These pictures do not transform Robinson into a convincing imitation of an Asian man, nor does he appear as a grotesque caricature. His expression is often calm, almost serene, conveying the kind of subservient, quiet wisdom often ascribed to Asian stereotypes. The place of so-called Oriental magic and medicine in colonial society made it so that claims of Asian wisdom, mysterious ancient methods of persuasion and healing, or—in Robinson’s case—silent but supernatural influence were fetishized and taken at face value. Earlier iterations of Angier’s Transported Man purport to be shaped by his travels to the Orient, an easy theatrical flourish that nonetheless gives his audience the thrill of exoticism and further suspension of disbelief. 

Robinson’s contemporary, a magician named Will Goldston who was also a historian of the profession and friend of Harry Houdini, suggested that the public failed to question the integrity of Soo’s identity because they were never given reason to in the first place. In his monologue about the three acts of a magic trick at the beginning of The Prestige, Cutter posits that the audience wants to be fooled and thus hold back from looking too closely, choosing to leave a space for mystery or perhaps even bias. Goldston said something slightly different. To him, William Robinson “presented to the public that which they like and not which he might prefer.” 

The lasting irony of The Prestige, something that is continually impressed upon me each time I watch it, is the fact that Cutter—the old man, the weathered veteran of the trade, someone who seems so pure of heart and sound of mind that he belongs to a more innocent story—is the real master of the film. Nolan uses multiple examples of Angier and Borden resorting to a narcissistic mode of self-sacrifice in order to justify their tortured methods of magic: the bird that dies beneath the collapsed cage so that another just like it can miraculously appear unharmed; the bifurcated lives of secret twins Alfred and Fallon Borden who each must let go of individuality in order to maintain the illusion that there is only one man between them; the hundred dead clones of Angier floating in glass tanks beneath an abandoned theater’s stage. Meanwhile, the entire time, Cutter stresses and indeed proves that there are other ways of attempting the same feats, but without casualties. Neither man takes the time, or seems to have the real skill, to learn this. So Borden and Angier both miss a lifetime of guaranteed moments, instead settling for fleeting instances that they can never fully enjoy for fear that they will be that which is sacrificed instead of that which is conjured. “I already know how he does it,” Cutter tries to tell Angier of Borden. “You just want it to be something more.” 

Angier’s travels to copy Borden’s trick lead him to modern technology’s mythological figurehead, a man whom Cutter says “can actually do what magicians pretend to do”: Nikola Tesla. Tesla—whose name is the five-letter keyword that unlocks Borden’s encoded diary; whom Edison, painted in the film as an unseen violent rival, fears is more brilliant than he; who works quietly in the mountains of Colorado building all manner of scientific wonders. That Tesla is played by David Bowie, a born showman but also an uncommonly attentive actor, points to the better of Christopher Nolan’s instincts. Here, Bowie is a soft-spoken yet uneasily formidable enigma. Tesla recognizes Angier’s obsession and initially thwarts it. He also recognizes a kindred spirit, a drive that promises either realized potential or catastrophe. When it comes down to convincing Tesla of his intentions, Angier simply pushes harder. Potential or catastrophe, he makes it seem like he doesn’t care. Angier is a good liar; it’s often impossible to tell which he actually hopes to achieve.

All of this leads to the inherent flaw that eats away at the two men at The Prestige’s center: their inability to correctly judge the meaning of their own lives. For Tesla, there is the implication of something ineffable, a cosmic truth or revelation that he is constantly tinkering to find, one that he says will one day destroy him. For Cutter, there is a workaday materiality, the skill and knowledge of decades applied to a passion he nevertheless understands the limits of. Angier and Borden are searching for validation, transient and ever-shifting. They are searching for the comfort of recognition, of the kind of notoriety and importance that embeds itself into the collective imagination like a fairytale. 

Ironically, their divergent forms of hubris bend slightly in Borden’s favor. Early in the film, when Borden meets his future wife, Sarah, he woos her with a magic trick. Walking her to her apartment, Fallon bids Sarah farewell and Alfred “appears” inside as if teleported from the stairs in a matter of seconds. This scene is about more than her belief in the trick, but also the fact that the only way Borden can think to impress Sarah without compromising his plans for greatness is to maintain a spectacular lie. As for Angier, it is his own lack of imagination that propels him to an existential revelation that nearly grants him amnesty from his actions. 

In the film’s third act, after procuring his show-stopping machine from Tesla, after setting up the frame that will ensure Borden’s death, Angier stages a final theatrical run of 100 shows. He has given up nearly everything a human being could hope to live for. Grievously injured by his rival, abandoned by his mistress, chided by his mentor, and more alone than he ever was, Angier performs the greatest magic trick that London has ever seen: the real Transported Man. Instead of the span of a stage, Angier vanishes in front of the audience and reappears dozens of meters away behind them. It is a trick that neither of the Borden twins can fathom. On his first night performing the illusion, which the film’s audience has yet to understand is really a macabre orchestration of repeated suicide and rematerialization, Angier is engulfed in a web of lightning before disappearing. 

The audience sits in silence, men and women turning in their seats, looking around the auditorium. With his dying breaths, Angier says that this moment, this suspension of time and wonder, is what it was all for. Cutter told him a story once, of a man who drowned before coming back to life, and how his resuscitation was like “going home.” Of course, we learn that Cutter was lying, that what Nolan illustrates throughout The Prestige is the real truth of surviving an endeavor so harrowing: agony. But Angier is nearly saint-like in his devotion to the performance. When his rematerialized clone finally reappears on the balcony of the theater, the spotlight swings over to him and he shouts his gospel—a proclamation of such grandiosity and delusion, he saves it for the one trick that finally matches his terrible ambition. “Man’s reach,” he declares to the audience below, “exceeds his imagination.”