The Escape Artist ★★★★

The Escape Artist was part of producer Francis Ford Coppola’s attempt to establish his studio, Zoetrope, as a commercial force in American film to rival the Hollywood majors. He launched Zoetrope in 1982 with several high profile movies and several lesser known films for which he gave a directorial chance to his creative collaborators and to European directors considered uncommercial by Hollywood. Thus, although there were some doubts as to noted cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s desire to make an apparent oddity like The Escape Artist, Coppola stuck by his friend, giving the first-time director relative creative freedom and support. Thus the film emerged presumably as Deschanel intended and although it failed to win over either critics or audiences, it is a thoroughly intriguing and unusual entertainment. Deschanel continued to direct sporadically, surviving the fall of Zoetrope following the ruinous failure of Coppola’s own One from the Heart, but sadly his directorial debut passed into relative obscurity.

The Escape Artist concerns an adolescent boy (Griffin O’Neal) who is haunted by the death of his father, an escape artist and apparent petty criminal, and seeks to emulate him and become a renowned escape artist himself. He runs away from his home to join a travelling act run by his relatives. There he realizes that he may have to return but in the process comes across an imbalanced man, the mayor’s son (Raul Julia), and steals his wallet in revenge. The wallet contains incriminating money, implicating the mayor in corruption, and Julia seeks to get it back. When he discovers the boy’s abilities, he wants to use him to break into the mayor’s safe and retrieve some incriminating documents. However, when problems arise, the boy hatches a plan to break out of a prison cell as a publicity gimmick and sets also about the process of safe-cracking. All the while the boy has repeated memories of his father, and once attempts to recreate a magic act that may have led to his death. He must battle to control the adult situation around him as it gets ever more threatening and dangerous.

As entertaining as it is, the film is rather muddled in development although is anchored around the boy’s feelings for his absent father. It is as though the closer he gets to achieving his escapes, the closer he is to coming to terms with, or even undoing at a subconscious level, his father’s death. He is a child prodigy whose ambitions force him to deal with the moral complexities of the adult world. He is a smart young man who triumphs over the adults around him, never letting them fully exploit him even though it is apparent that Julia wishes to use him. Yet Julia is presented almost as a dysfunctional child, a nuisance to his father the mayor who has reached the breaking point of patience. Both O’Neal and Julia are in some way obsessed with, and dominated by, their fathers. Adults here are deceptive tricksters (at least his relatives are open about it, transforming their con-man charade into a respectable touring act) yet vulnerable to the machinations of a clever, determined boy who is able to rise above circumstances and express himself. He even pursues a romantic contact with a child waitress at a diner – although this plot thread is unexpectedly abandoned part way through. The final escape sequence however makes for a truly captivating final act even if the means of getting there has meant a somewhat uncertain sense of direction.

Indeed at times through the film it is difficult to know what it is meant to be about or where it is heading. Yet as a psychological caper movie it is most intriguing. Although the film cleverly manipulates the sense of fear for this child’s safety, it marvels at his achievements. He is at a delicate point in his life and the film actively wonders through much of its length where this young boy will head now that he is effectively without true adult guidance. Thus he is shown being adept not only at card tricks but at pick-pocketing and in a key scene, decides to keep a wallet of money rather than return, surrender or dispose of it. Ambiguously the wallet becomes both the trigger for moral consequence and his eventual means of triumphing over his surroundings, escaping from the adult yoke that would suppress or exploit him, although there is an unexplained and undeveloped apparent telepathic link to his psychic aunt. He is an astute boy, clearly sensing the dysfunctional aberration of the goofy Julia, a man trapped in a warped childishness. Indeed, just as the film in Julia’s character so equates mental aberration with an inability to mature so too it stresses the boy’s need to move beyond childhood as a necessity best confronted as soon as possible if survival and self-assertion are to follow. Thus, although charming, the film never idealizes childhood, and indeed seems comparable in parts (especially in the scenes with the waitress, which suggest an adult world totally occupied by children) to Alan Parker’s bizarre movie Bugsy Malone.