Sleight of hand tends to suffer on the big screen because moviegoers are so accustomed to mechanical trickery—to make something disappear, all you really need is a good splice. But the magic in Deceptive Practice, Molly Bernstein’s documentary portrait of actor and stage illusionist Ricky Jay, comes mainly from Jay’s fond recollections of old performers. Grandson of an amateur stage magician, Jay made his own performing debut in 1953 at age seven, and through his childhood and teenage years in Brooklyn he met some of the master prestidigitators of vaudeville and early video—Cardini, Tony Slydini, Francis Carlyle, Al Flosso, Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller. As Jay explains, these mentors were almost like martial arts sensei, teachers who would test him, shape his values, and—in a profession defined by secrecy—gradually reveal how they achieved their “effects.”
Jay isn’t about to reveal any of those effects to us, but he does recall, with great love and respect, the lessons in showmanship his grandfather imparted to him as they watched these old troupers. Slydini was a master of misdirecting attention; in one TV clip he stands before a volunteer and persuades him that he’s making little foam balls disappear, one after the other, when he’s simply throwing them over the man’s shoulder and directing his attention elsewhere. Francis Carlyle had a gift for narrating each effect: “People are often confused in terms of what was even supposed to take place in a magic illusion,” Jay says. “Francis was great about letting you know what was supposed to happen, and what did happen, and why you should be excited about it.” Ultimately Jay wound up moving to Los Angeles and becoming a disciple of Vernon and Miller, hanging around with one or the other all day long and soaking up as much as he could in their presence.
Deceptive Practice may conjure up a lost world of American entertainment, but it also reminds you that even in the 70s, when Jay made a name for himself on the TV talk show circuit, stage magic was a dying art. Jay is one of those few stage illusionists to break into other occupations, working as a writer, lecturer, and actor (in movies by David Mamet, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Christopher Nolan, to name only a few). Some of his mentors weren’t so lucky: Jay recalls finding Carlyle, who was alcoholic, living on the streets of LA in 1975. Jay took the aging master home with him for a few days, but by the end of the year Carlyle was dead. The story might explain why Jay’s mentors were willing to school him; one can spend a lifetime hoarding secrets, but eventually there’s nowhere to take them except the grave.