Black Magic (1949)

Film Review


Release Date: 19 August, 1949

Studio: United Artists

Director: Gregory Ratoff

Starring: Orson Welles, Diane Guild, Akim Tamiroff, Stephan Bekassy, Margot Grahame


The gypsy parents of a child are condemned by Count Bekassy and hanged before his eyes. The boy swears revenge. Sheltered by Tamiroff, the boy grows into a mesmerizing charlatan (Welles) peddling an "elixir of life". Welles realizes that his hypnotic powers enable him to manipulate an individual's thoughts and behavior. He changes his name to Cagliostro and tours Europe promoting himself as an all-powerful healer. In France, Count Bekassy (unaware of their earlier encounter) asks Welles to treat a young woman, Guild, who is in a deep sleep. The girl closely resembles Marie Antoinette, the wife of the dauphin. Bekassy and Grahame (Madame du Barry) intend to use Guild to impersonate and discredit Marie Antoinette. With the dauphine in disgrace, Grahame would be able to marry King Louis XV. However, the death of Louis XV and the accession of Louis XVI puts an end to the plan. Meanwhile, Cagliostro has become enamored of Guild and marries her. He intends to use her resemblance to Marie Antoinette to bring about the downfall of Count Bekassy. Welles succeeds in disgracing and killing Bekassy, but Guild turns against him, and his plotting culminates in his own dishonor and death.


The character of Cagliostro calls for a bravura performance, and Welles provides it, using his voice and looks effectively in an extravagant performance. This film was made during Welles' busiest period in film (1946-1952). He appeared in three films in 1949 (Black Magic, The Third Man and Prince of Foxes), and in The Black Rose in 1950. His characters in these films are outsized personalities, well suited to Welles' larger-than-life acting. The other actors appearing in Black Magic, who have less showy parts, are adequate in support. The busy plot develops slowly to the predictable conclusion.

Ratoff, director and producer, had ten years of stage experience as an actor before he began his film career in 1932. Initially an actor, he subsequently also became a director and producer (for a few of his own films). He was a competent director whose films are often entertaining, if slow paced, but lacking in any individual or distinctive qualities.

Diane Guild had a short career (1946-1955). She was pretty and sincere, but lacking in screen presence and flair.

The film is based on the life of Giuseppe (Joseph) Balsamo, alias Alessandro Cagliostro, an 18th century adventurer, notorious as an occultist, alchemist, forger, and swindler. This extraordinary individual has fascinated composers and writers for two centuries, and his character appears in numerous operas, stories, and films.