The Prestige plays a trick on its audience, hiding a secret in plain sight

The Prestige plays a trick on its audience, hiding a secret in plain sight

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean. Note: This column reveals major plot points about Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige.

Magic tricks frequently involve misdirection. In order to create an illusion, the magician needs to perform an action the audience shouldn’t see; this requires providing them with something else on which they can focus. (One of the reasons it’s difficult for magicians to fool other magicians is that magicians know what to ignore.) When it comes to the magic of the movies, however, things get a little trickier. Misdirection is still sometimes necessary, but can be hard to achieve. In a sense, the nature of the medium works against it: Because the director has complete control over what the viewer sees (and doesn’t see), visual manipulation can come across as “cheating.” You can certainly surprise people by, say, revealing the killer to be a character who was never quite visible in the frame, but they’re not likely to leave the theater feeling satisfied. A more sophisticated approach is necessary—one that distracts the audience from thinking too hard about one element of the narrative by getting them to speculate about another element.

Christopher Nolan is a master of cinematic misdirection, and he uses it to best effect, appropriately, in his movie about dueling magicians, The Prestige. Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, adapted their screenplay from a novel by Christopher Priest, and while they made a number of significant changes (resulting in the movie having a radically different ending from the book), one of the narrative elements they chose to keep involves a secret that’s much easier to conceal on the page than it is on the screen. One could argue that it’s not strictly necessary to conceal it—and, indeed, The Prestige becomes a much richer experience on second viewing, when you know what’s going on and can start to wrap your head around the sacrifices made by both Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). All the same, the Nolans withhold this key piece of information until the last few minutes, using a variety of methods to dissuade viewers from guessing it. Some of these methods are basic, but the most effective finds them simply announcing what the secret is at a moment when nobody is paying much attention. It happens here:

This scene introduces the trick that will fuel the rest of the movie: The Transported Man (though we haven’t heard that name at this point). Borden devises it, and Angier, as we see, immediately decides to steal it; their rivalry/blood feud will intensify over a period of years until it leads to ruin for both of them—or for two of the three, as it eventually turns out. But more on that in a moment. What’s crucial here initially is Nolan’s decision to gradually build anticipation for Borden’s illusion and then decline to actually show it. He cuts back and forth between Angier observing Borden’s act, in disguise, and Angier removing the disguise a bit later, as his assistant (Scarlett Johansson) asks him what happened. The stark juxtaposition between Borden’s banal patter (“Just a rubber ball? No. Not normal. Not a normal rubber ball. S’magic.”) and Angier’s awestruck declaration afterward (“It’s the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen.”) inspires enormous curiosity, just as Borden sets the trick in motion… at which point Nolan suddenly cuts to Michael Caine, who plays John Cutter, Angier’s ingénieur (a sort of a mechanic for magicians). The trick’s climax plays out entirely on Cutter’s face. He looks singularly underwhelmed. We don’t see what happens.

There are multiple levels of misdirection here, some of which fall into the “hide in plain sight” category. To begin with, Borden places a lot of emphasis on his little rubber ball, tossing it to an audience member for inspection and then declaring it to be magical. In truth, the ball has nothing to do with the trick, apart from creating a memorable image (which Angier will later modify to tossing a top hat across the stage). But it’s the bouncing of the ball we hear at the trick’s unseen conclusion, accompanied by the disorienting sight of Cutter, who wasn’t present at the performance we were watching. There’s a jump in time, from one night at the theater to another, that has to be inferred retroactively, which is one of the means Nolan uses to overload viewers’ brains. Another: the scramble to reconcile Angier’s mind being blown with Cutter’s blasé expression. Yet another: The film quickly cuts to a followup scene in which Angier and Cutter animatedly discuss the nature of Borden’s trick—a trick that, again, we haven’t quite actually seen. The first time you watch that conversation, your mind is consumed with wondering what the trick is.

You don’t have long to wait. It’s revealed just a few minutes later—first in Angier’s ripped-off version (“The New Transported Man”), and then in Borden’s original incarnation. By that point, however, it’s probably too late. Cutter has explained exactly what’s going on, and his words have fallen on ears uninterested in processing them at that instant, much less in mulling them over. For Borden’s secret is just what Cutter says it is, mere seconds after The Transported Man is introduced: a double. Specifically, “Alfred Borden” is a pair of identical twins who share both that identity and the identity of Alfred’s ostensible ingénieur, Bernard Fallon. Fallon doesn’t exist in Priest’s epistolary novel (which reveals fairly early on that Borden is twins)—he’s the Nolans’ attempt to play fair, to account for both brothers visually at times when both would likely be present. And Chris Nolan, as director, does his best to keep Fallon (played by Bale in heavy makeup) semi-hidden without making it too obvious that he doesn’t want viewers examining that character closely. If that were the extent of the subterfuge, it probably wouldn’t work.

Instead, this scene has Cutter flatly announce that Borden’s (still unknown) trick uses a double, and then persuade Angier that he needs to find a double if he wants to duplicate it (which Angier promptly does). That’s the “hide in plain sight” aspect I mentioned earlier, along with having both Angier (in this very scene) and Borden (elsewhere in the film, as “himself”) don physical disguises. It takes a special gift to recognize that the best way to conceal information is to openly reveal it at a moment when the audience is consumed with another question entirely. Had Nolan shown Borden step out of the right-hand door and catch the bouncing rubber ball—which he does show just a few minutes later—Angier and Cutter’s discussion of a double would have sufficient context to allow viewers to pick sides, or at least consider the matter. Instead, the two men are arguing about an illusion we’ve only seen half of, and the question of what it is overwhelms any consideration of how it works, for just long enough to plant an idea that we’re encouraged to dismiss (but will remember we were told, eliminating any possibility of feeling cheated).

“Did they applaud when you saw it?” Angier asks Cutter. We’d heard a tiny smatter of confused applause, and Cutter explains: “The trick was too good, it was too simple. The audience hardly had time to see it.” Nolan’s trick is equally simple, and equally good: Tell the audience, emphatically, that the butler did it, without any real indication of what “it” even is. Obfuscate and confess at the same time. There’s a twinkle in Caine’s eye when Angier insists that it’s the same man who emerges from the second door and Cutter serenely replies, in close-up, “No, it isn’t.” He looks amused at the prospect of being roundly ignored.