‘God is angry at me because I’ve stolen his tricks,’ is the rash rationalisation of Yasha Mazur (Alan Arkin) in this forgotten adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s magic-realist novel; those who defy the gods come to sticky ends. But despite a curious pedigree, The Magician of Lublin deserves better than its unceremonious fate.
Director Menahem Golan would go on to be a staple contributor to his Cannon imprint, and was just short of an unenviable triple whammy of numb-skull action in Enter The Ninja, Delta Force and Over the Top. But here, he’s reaching for the stars with a quality literary source, a star-studded cast of Oscar-nominees and winners, and a high-minded fidelity to a fable about age, experience and transformation.
Sex is a key element; Mazur gets around, and even though he has a loyal wife, he also has a girl in every port, or at least every city where he takes his travelling show. Sitting on a chair on a perilously high-wire over packed village squares, he’s adored by many and takes advantage by bedding as many women as he can, including Superman’s Valerie Perrine. But Mazur’s obsession with Emelia (Louise Fletcher) proves his downfall; his attempts to seduce her lead to a domino-effect collapse of his fortunes, and he stakes his reputation on a stage-show in a massive theatre where his agent believes, Mazur will take leave of his earthly restrictions and fly like a bird.
With Shelley Winters and Lou Jacobi around, Polish authenticity is intermittent, but that’s very much an issue of the times and specific commercial sensibilities. Arkin is tremendous here, arrogant, wry, but successful in identifying and expressing his character’s ego-centricity and vulnerability. The Magician of Lublin has been elusive as a film since an early 80’s VHS pressing, but it’s impressive period feel, gusty performances, and tricky ending are all worth seeking out. Original theme song by Kate Bush below, even if the film itself has managed a genuine vanishing act over the last four decades.