Film and magic are surprisingly similar. Both require a sense of showmanship, withholding information from the audience to make the greater illusion have more of an impact. In a magic trick, the magicians use slight of hand and misdirection to guide an audience along, following their step-by-step process until the reveal of something unthinkable. They’ll keep your eye on one card, or keep getting the card you chose wrong, so in that final moment, when they in fact knew your card all along, they leave you in awe. A story in a movie isn’t all that different; they can’t just tell you in the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, because then why would we care? Instead, Empire takes you on a journey, capitalizing on a point of misdirection from the previous film - that Vader killed Luke’s father, right? Making the film’s climatic reveal one of the most powerful in cinematic history. There is a film in particular that understands that middle chunk of the Magic/Film Venn diagram better than most: Christopher Nolan’s, The Prestige.
The Prestige came out in 2006, sandwiched between Nolan’s mega hits, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The film follows the bitter rivalry of two magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), as they attempt to both sabotage each other’s career, while also trying to learn the coveted secrets of each other’s ultimate magic trick, “The Transported Man.” In the film’s opening, we hear Cutter (Michael Caine) explain how a magic trick is performed in three parts. He describes these parts as “The Pledge,” “The Turn” and, finally, “The Prestige.” Now, the film can also be broken down using a term that many know as Three Act Structure. This structure is a tried and true method that has been used in screenwriting for many, many years. With, or without (and most times, with) this structure in mind, all screenplays can be broken down using it. I believe that in Nolan’s The Prestige, he’s using the idea of a “magic trick,” or even magic itself, as an allegory for screenwriting.
The first image in the film is about a dozen or so top hats, all exactly the same, strewn about a forest floor. Then we hear a voice ask, “Are you watching closely?” In the following sequence, Cutter describes “The Pledge” as,
“The magician shows you something ordinary. A deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it. To show you that it is indeed unaltered. But of course it probably isn’t.”
This monologue is played over three intercut scenes: Cutter showing a young girl a bird, then Angier on stage as the curtain rises, behind him a strange machine, following that we see Borden, disguised, being chosen from the crowd to come onto the stage. These scenes help visualize this idea; we see a bird, a man, both ordinary, unaltered. This though, is misdirection, a tool of a magician and a filmmaker. The something ordinary, unaltered item that probably isn’t what it seems isn’t the bird, or the man, it’s those top hats, the ones you already forgot about five minutes into the movie.
The first Act of a movie also comes with its own set of rules. Act one is the set up for the rest of story, in the first few minutes of the film we have exposition, the bits of the story that set up the basic who, what and where. Followed by that, we have the inciting incident, the point in the film that explains the major ‘problem’, or thematic question of the movie. Act one is a movie’s pledge to the audience. The Prestige is told non-linearly, meaning it bounces back and forth within the timeline of the film’s narrative. Our exposition is Cutter’s monologue over all of the action that happens in the film’s climax leading into the courtroom, where we get our inciting incident, Borden on trial for what seems like Angier’s murder. Whether it is a magic trick or a story, this is essentially the hook in the audience’s lip, reeling them in for the rest of the film. When an Act ends, it happens at a major point of change, it’s at this point the plot shifts, the wheel of the ship begin to turn.
Act one ends when we get the answer to why Angier has such distain for Borden. He believes Borden is responsible for his wife’s death because of a magic trick gone awry. This is the beginning of their arms race to ruin each other’s careers. This is the road that makes them become the men we see in the beginning of the movie. Cutter describes “The Turn” as,
“The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it. Because of course, you’re not really looking. Don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back.”
Over this chunk of the monologue we see exactly that. Cutter performs the second part of the disappearing bird act in front of the girl by seemingly crushing it and it’s cage out of existence. Then we see Angier step into the machine and become engulfed by lightning, before he too disappears into a trap door on the stage. We see a man and a bird do something extraordinary: the act of disappearing.
The second Act of a film is the longest and where most of the action occurs. During the film’s second act we see the development of Borden and Angier’s greatest trick, “The Transported Man” (or cheekily called later in the film “The ‘Real’ or ‘New’ Transported Man”). The arm’s race and subsequent sabotage of each other’s career (a loss of some fingers and a broken leg) culminates in the film’s most supernatural moment. Angier goes to Nikola Tesla (David muthah fuckin’ Bowie) in hopes to find a way to perfect this trick and finally have the upper hand on Borden. Here we see Angier’s top hat do something extraordinary. We learn that Tesla’s machine that we see in action in the beginning of the flick doesn’t transport anything, what it does is make a duplicate copy, and send it somewhere else. Act two ends with Angier testing out Tesla’s machine on himself for the first time, followed immediately by Borden reading Angier’s journal, which reads, “it is hear I leave you at The Turn, Borden”. It is here we leave Act two.
“That’s why every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part. The part we call…’The Prestige’.”
Act Three begins with Borden, behind bars, giving Lord Caldlow’s assistant “The Pledge” and “Turn” for his version of “The Transported Man,” saying he’ll only give “The Prestige” when he see’s his daughter again. Borden is metaphorically handing over the Act one and Act two of this film’s story. During Cutter’s monologue at the beginning of the film, he describes the Prestige over images of the bird reappearing and Angier drowning in a tank. It’s not enough to make something disappear; you have to bring it back. As an audience to a film, it’s not enough to throw questions at us, you need to give us answers. Ambiguity can be achieved in stories and garner great conversation, but unanswered questions are something else entirely. During the films climax, the final confrontation happens between Borden and Angier, and we learn everything. We get all the answers. All of the story threads are woven together creating the end result of the film, creating “The Prestige.”
Borden shoots Angier in the final moments of the film, avenging his twin brother’s death and putting an end to the madness of the film. Angier’s final monologue goes as follows,
“You never understood, why we did this. The audience knows the truth…the world is simple. It’s miserable. Solid…all the way through. But if you could fool them even for a second…then you could make them wonder. And then you…then you got to see something very special.”
Screenwriting, or storytelling in general, does exactly that. Seeing a movie, reading a book, watching a play, this all gives us a chance to escape from our own harsh reality. We know these stories of grandeur are fake, we know they’re made up and meant to entertain, but to be entertained, to cry at something or laugh is one of the greatest achievements in storytelling. Sometimes, you just want to be fooled.
Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter @RoBaeBae