Orson Welles finished so few of his own directorial projects that fans look hopefully -- or forlornly -- for signs of the great man's hand in films in which others directed him. Inevitably, it is claimed that he directed some of his Black Magic scenes in place of official director Gregory Ratoff. In his just-published third installment of the definitive Welles biography, Simon Callow writes that he "quite openly directed his own scenes late into the night [while] Ratoff's directing was confined to the morning." Which scenes are his is unclear, but anyone who watches the picture can single out certain bravura bits of framing that may have been beyond Ratoff's talent or imagination. Callow adds that Welles tried to rewrite the story, a loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas -- a favorite of producer Edward Small -- to make his character, Joseph "Count Caligostro" Balsamo, into a would-be revolutionary. He didn't get far in that regard; the character's moments of revolutionary potential pass in montage. But Black Magic definitely is torn between two conflicting views of its protagonist, though this arguably is a matter of the main story violating expectations created in a prologue portraying young Balsamo as an orphaned victim of anti-Gypsy persecution by the Vicount de Montagne (Stephen Dekassy). This cruelty puts us on Balsamo's side and appears to set him up as an avenging hero, but while the adult Balsamo definitely has revenge on his agenda, he has also gone mad with the power he discovered quite by accident while touring with his medicine show, when he calms and appears to heal a woman who has accidentally poisoned herself. His stunt attracts the attention of Franz Anton Mesmer (Charles Goldner), who lent his name to the skill Balsamo appeared to possess. Mesmer appears disinterested, unwilling to accept a rich reward when Balsamo seems to heal a palsied aristocrat, but Joseph himself is a poor, hungry Gypsy with big dreams who's found a way to make money. As Cagliostro, he and his powers become the talk of Europe, earning him a visit to the court of Louis XV of France, where the main story takes place.
Caligostro's old oppressor is part of a conspiracy inspired by Mme. Du Barry, the King's mistress (Margot Grahame), to discredit Marie Antoinette (Nancy Guild), the wife of the Dauphin, who disapproves of Du Barry. They've discovered a double for the princess in Lorenza (Guild, quite effective in the dual role), an innocent young woman with a soldier paramour, Gilbert de Rezel (Frank Latimore). If Calgliostro can mesmerize Lorenza -- why not caligostrate her? -- she can be used to trick a high official into buying an expensive necklace with public money. When this is exposed, the real princess's reputation will be ruined. Cagliostro is all for this -- historically, he was acquitted when accused of involvement in the real-life conspiracy -- if it means making Lorenza his mind-controlled mistress, but an even bigger scheme gradually forms in his mind. There are only two problems: Gilbert is implacably determined to track down his lost love, and Lorenza has irrepressible feelings for the soldier -- despite Latimore being one of the stiffest romantic leads ever.
Cagliostro quickly surrenders all sympathy through his ruthless domination of Lorenza and his mounting megalomania. Even Svengali, at least in the Barrymore film, realizes ruefully that when mind-controlled Trilby reaffirms her love for him it's "only Svengali talking to himself again," but if Cagliostro realizes this, it doesn't bother him in the least. One suspects that Welles, behind the scenes, was successfully turning the real man, or Dumas' version of him, into a typical Wellesian narcissist monster, for whom revolutionary tendencies wouldn't necessarily be contradictory. To the extent that Welles participated in the creation of his character, he seems also to be reworking ideas born with his fugitive Nazi in The Stranger. That Ratoff and his credited writers may have been thinking the same way may be tipped off by the extended climax, a bravura variation on Stranger's clock-tower finale, in which Cagliostro and Gilbert fence atop a Roman landmark standing in for a Parisian landmark. There are plenty of bravura moments in Black Magic, whether from Ratoff or Welles, amid spectacular Italian locations, but the film is just about sunk by Welles's shocking failure --especially shocking for a practicing magician -- in the role of a diabolical mesmerist.
First, the script, possibly with Welles's own input, makes Cagliostro so unpleasant that you can't root for him even when the male romantic lead is a hopeless dud like Latimore. Second, there's an irrepressible restlessness about Welles that undermines Cagliostro's credibility. Tellingly, the film depends as much on Welles' voice -- the voice of The Shadow and the voice that convinced millions that Martians were invading Earth -- as on his physical presence to put over Cagliostro's power. When you learn that Bela Lugosi wanted to produce and star in a Cagliostro picture you realize what's missing in Welles's performance -- a certain stillness, an uncanny calm, except for the eyes, that focuses your full attention on the mesmerist. By comparison with Lugosi, Welles isn't doing enough with his eyes, or else is doing the wrong things. He could have nailed this on the radio, but he never was that great of a movie actor and that shows here. In fact, Black Magic has one of the most embarrassing moments in Welles's acting career. On trial for his role in the necklace affair and managing his own defense, Cagliostro has reasserted his control over Lorenza and made her deny any knowledge of his role in the plot. Suddenly, Dr. Mesmer appears and asks to interrogate Cagliostro. The jurisprudence of absolute monarchy permits this, and the good (?) doctor proves that he has more tricks than he taught Joseph Balsamo. Putting the defendant under his control with an irresistible shiny object, Mesmer gets him to confess all, including a lust for power that Welles underscores by croaking "Power!" repeatedly and punctuates with the vow, "I can still do it!" I like to think Ratoff directed that scene, and toward the end of the shoot as payback for whatever abuse Welles reportedly heaped upon him. Whatever Welles was up to, Ratoff and the writers must share most of the blame for Black Magic's failure as a story -- it remains a visual treat -- most likely because they never really figured out what to do with or about their star.