The Triple Conjurer and the Living Head (1900)
Alternate Title: L’Illusionniste double et le tete vivant
This short from Georges Méliès demonstrates the sophistication his special effects had already taken on in the last year of the nineteenth century, and the care and hard work he put into them. I’m including it in my “history of horror” for October, because of the theme of animated heads, which we saw in “The Mysterious Knight” as well.
We see Méliès himself appear on a proscenium-style set that has some familiar “magic show” elements in the background, including a cauldron and a demon face. He suddenly steps to the side, and a second Méliès steps out to the other side. The two Méliès sit on stools facing each other and interact. One Méliès gets a table and puts it between them, then places a woman’s (mannequin) head on top of it. The head comes to life and speaks. The conjurer crawls underneath the table to show that there is no body below the table. Then the second Méliès gets up and causes the woman to materialize completely – now she has a body. Both of them appear to be attracted, and make motions to kiss her, but she refuses. Then a new figure, which is Méliès in his devil costume from “The Devil in a Convent” appears and causes the woman to disappear. The Méliès facing the Devil sees him and runs off stage. The other one seems puzzled, and the devil gestures from behind his back. Finally, he turns around and sees the Devil, also running off screen. The Devil removes his costume and reveals himself as a third Méliès, taking a bow for his magic.
We’re so used to seeing people “mirrored” in the screen that we don’t think too much of it anymore, but it was quite a wow to have three images of the same person on the screen at once in 1900. Moreover, it took a lot of precision work. Méliès had to shoot the scene three times, making sure that he hit his cues at the same moment for each take, and not accidentally step in the same place at the same time as his “other self” would appear there. The interactions between the two images are perfect, including eye-lines and reactions, and there is no visible “split” between the two images, something which filmmakers as late as the 70s and 80s were still messing up. The head is less perfect – the table top seems to be detached from the legs, and it moves around when she talks or turns her head. This is another movie that won’t scare anyone, but I would say that the entertainment value is undiminished, in part because Méliès’s charm and enthusiasm comes through so strongly.
Director: Georges Méliès
Starring: Georges Méliès, Georges Méliès, and Georges Méliès
Run Time: 1 Min
You can watch it for free: here (with music).