The Prestige: Magic Tricks and Fiction

There is a lie at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. The movie is an elaborate trick, and Nolan knows it; he rubs our noses in it, not once, but twice. The trick is that the film has a glaring logical flaw, but we don’t notice it. We don’t notice, because we don’t want to notice it. But if we choose to see it, it opens up the real meaning of the movie. Nolan is showing us that this is how all movies work.
The Prestige opens with the following lines;

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. 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 see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. 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. You 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. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.”

Cutter, an inventor of tricks (or ingénieur) and the movie’s narrator, describes a three-act structure possessed by magic tricks – Pledge, Turn and Prestige – which although fictional, is clearly based upon the classical three-act dramatic structure upon which all mainstream movies are constructed. Following the success of Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan was in the position to make a film he had personally developed. The Prestige was selected over another working script, Inception, which would require a budget that Nolan would be unable to raise until after the phenomenal success of his second Batman movie The Dark Knight. The script, by Nolan and his brother (another theme of the movie) was adapted quickly from Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel, wisely ditching the present-day framing narrative, and powerfully rearranging the chronological structure in order to increase narrative tension. The film was widely misunderstood as a “twist” movie, in the style of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, perhaps because of Nolan’s obsessive secrecy, which went so far as to block a lucrative tie-in edition of Priest’s original novel. Roger Ebert described the film as containing too many twists, as though every denouement constituted a twist. The revelation of the “prestige materials” is scarcely a surprise to anyone paying attention. If there is one actual twist, it is the reveal about Borden and his ingénieur, which forces the viewer to reaccess what has gone before, but, to judge by the reviews, wasn’t all that unexpected for many viewers.

The Pledge: Nolan shows us something ordinary: a man, or two, to be accurate. Borden and Angier are two young magicians, working their apprenticeships acting as stooges for another magician. During one performance, Angier’s girlfriend, the magician’s assistant, drowns as a result of Borden’s recklessness. The two become mortal enemies, and repeatedly attempt to destroy each other’s careers. Although Angier, a natural performer, is initially the more successful, Borden becomes successful after performing an astounding trick called The Transported Man, where he is transported instantly from one side of the stage to the other. Borden and his ingénieur Fallen are twins, each living half a life in order to make the trick work. Sometimes Borden is the brother who loves their wife and is father to their daughter, and sometimes he is the other who loves their glamorous assistant, but they can only swap places when they perform the trick.

The Turn: Nolan makes things extraordinary when he introduces the enigmatic Nicola Tesla into the mix (played with fittingly aloof detachment by David Bowie). Angier, refusing to believe his ingénieur Cutter, who tells him that he is using a double, sets off to find Tesla and commission him to built a teleportation machine. Eventually, Tesla produces a device which copies, rather than teleports, whatever is placed inside it. When the trick is performed in London, Angier becomes a huge success, trumping Borden, who flies into a rage. Yet Angier is forced to kill the previous copy of himself, night after night, by dropping himself into a tank of water under the stage to drown, while the copy appears on a balcony at the back of the theatre.

The Prestige: the trick is then right in front of us, but it is not easy to spot. It is established that when Angier uses the Box, the double is produced practically instantaneously. The scene where Borden rages about how quickly Angier (which we know to be the double) appears on the balcony underlines that the film-maker wants the viewers to know it (at least, if we are paying attention). Why, then, (and this is the fundamental point) does the double fail to appear on the night that Borden barges backstage?

I have been offered two explanations. First, it has been suggested that the copy hears Borden as he hacks at the tank containing the original Angier. Yet we are shown several seconds of silence, at the end of which we hear Borden shouting from underneath the stage. If the Angier copy simply hears Borden, then we need to explain why he didn’t appear within a second as in every other performance. An alternative explanation is that Angier allowed Borden to sabotage the show, in order to see him jailed. But the same problem applies: either Angier and his latest clone are telepathic, or they knew he was coming in advance. And neither of these possibilities is suggested in the movie, nor, for that matter, the original novel. Nevertheless, Angier’s clone does survive; in fact the narrative relies upon it. But it makes no sense.

And yet we go along with it. That’s Nolan’s trick, his Prestige. And just like in the movie, the answer was right in front of us all along. Borden and Cutter repeatedly tell us that the Transported Man could only be done with a double, and the first shot shows us the result of Tesla’s machine working. At the same moment, Nolan, through his avatar Cutter, tells us that he is playing tricks with you.

Nolan’s other movies may cheat narratively, too. Many have argued that 2010’s Inception breaks its own internal logic rules by having Cobb use his wife’s totem after stating that they have to be uniquely personal (and see here for an example of the lengths some have gone to to explain the anomaly without breaking the film’s logic). His 2000 breakthrough, Memento, is noted for its backward structure, in which each scene precedes chronologically the one it follows narratively, attempting to mimic the short-term memory loss of the central character. Famously, the DVD includes the option to play the movie chronologically, from the film’s final scene to its opening scene. All that is revealed by doing so, however, is the fact that the film’s narrative is created through its structure. Watched forwards, we see a man telling an amnesiac that he will manipulate him, and then watch him doing it. All tension, doubt, ambiguity – in short, all narrative tension – is gone. The structure is not merely a narrative device, but in fact creates the narrative. Similarly, The Prestige’s narrative tension is largely created through its non-linear, cut-up structure.

Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.

Cutter repeats these lines at the movie’s closing. I believe he represent the film-maker, the cutter, who chooses what we see – and what we don’t – and in which order. The flickering stills of cinema are no exception, and Nolan’s is not the first film to make the equation between cinema and magic tricks (Orson Welles’ magisterial and sadly little-known F for Fake being a prime example). Film-making is a magic trick: by flashing still images quickly enough, we create the illusion of movement, by cutting from one shot to another, we create narrative, and by controlling the placement of certain images, we create subtext. We, as viewers, are complicit in the trick; we know how it works, but we want to be fooled. All works of art play tricks on us, from the blobs of paint on a flat canvas which we translate into the likeness of a human being, to the gaps between the panels of the comic-book we fill from our imagination. Arguably, the skill of the artist is not in creating stories (which we all do naturally and without even thinking), but in smoothing over those bits where the listener might remember that they are just hearing a story. If the technical devices utilised to this end stay unnoticed by the audience, the work is successful; if not, the narrative fails. Derren Brown (who I regard as the finest illusionist in the world today) has said that a magician is an actor playing a magician – the audience never expect that the procedure is truly magical, and the pleasure comes from being unable to work out how it was done. For the poorer-quality movie, this applies most obviously to the visual effects; for The Prestige, it applies to the narrative. We don’t want to be aware of the director: as Angier repeatedly tells us, “no-one cares about the man in the box”.

The thing is, the few people I’ve mentioned my theory about The Prestige to, even though they were fans of Nolan and of The Prestige in particular, I got the impression they didn’t really want to know. They weren’t really looking. But of course, that’s how the trick works.

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24 thoughts on “The Prestige: Magic Tricks and Fiction

  1. [...] The Prestige: Magic Tricks and Fiction (davidgrobertson.wordpress.com) [...]

  2. Ride says:

    You are a moron, whomever wrote this 12 paragraph write up on how this doesn’t make sense.
    “Why, then, (and this is the fundamental point) does the double fail to appear on the night that Borden barges backstage?

    I have been offered two explanations. First, it has been suggested that the copy hears Borden as he hacks at the tank containing the original Angier. Yet we are shown several seconds of silence, at the end of which we hear Borden shouting from underneath the stage. If the Angier copy simply hears Borden, then we need to explain why he didn’t appear within a second as in every other performance. An alternative explanation is that Angier allowed Borden to sabotage the show, in order to see him jailed. But the same problem applies: either Angier and his latest clone are telepathic, or they knew he was coming in advance. And neither of these possibilities is suggested in the movie, nor, for that matter, the original novel. Nevertheless, Angier’s clone does survive; in fact the narrative relies upon it. But it makes no sense.”

    It’s painfully apparent that your shortsightedness caused you blindness…Angier said himself that each night he didn’t know if he would be in the box or on the balcony. But let’s really think about this, he was in both places, he was a copy of himself. That’s obviously why he already knew and didn’t want to get shot by himself the first time he tried the machine. Taking that a little further only reinforces the movie itself, all the double crossing between each others books of tricks while they read to themselves and the banter back and forth within. Of course it was planned, of course he wanted to not show himself the last time so Borden could be convicted of murder. To make him pay for his exwife’s death. Use your brain stupid.

    • eric says:

      You might want to re-read what you think you’ve just debunked, because you fail to address the simple question that’s asked — which is this: If Angier materializes up in the balcony stairs, how can he tell that Borden is down under the stage?

      There is a simple answer to this*, but in your anger you appear to have missed it — instead, focusing on a non-answer, thus proving the author’s point.


      *The simple answer: Angier has spies.

  3. Ride says:

    LOLOLOLOL I get it…your religious!

  4. adamkadmon says:

    Please explain. How does this follow from your first point? What makes you think I’m religious? And why would it matter if I were?

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  6. neil says:

    I agree… Prestige left me feeling there was a logic hole… exactly this one… nothing to do with religion shmores, watch the movie again or ready the script and don’t fall into the trap.

    In fact.. i only found this blog because I want my new girlfriend to watch it with me because I felt i had perhaps missed something. This blog makes me think, nah, I didn’t miss anything.. it was the writer who missed filling in the logic hole.

    Still one of my favorite movies of all time.. maybe number 40 or 50 but it’s still up there… a masterpiece visually and maybe the logic hole helped it grab me long-term!

  7. Raj says:

    you fool. Go watch the film again!

  8. Terry says:

    I don’t understand the backlash from this blog. I think it’s lovely, and very true. The fact is that, as a movie, it doesn’t have to make sense logically as long as it makes sense emotionally.

    • adamkadmon says:

      There’s no backlash, Terry, this is one of my favourite films ever. My argument is that the logical “mistake” is not actually a mistake, on the thematic level. The film’s theme is “narratives are magic tricks”, and the logic problem is there to flag this up. The whole narrative is a trick to make us skip over the logic problem because “we don’t want to see it”. That’s the prestige!

  9. MickeyMike says:

    Excuse me, but your whole write-up doesn’t make any sense. What again is your problem with the film? I think you are overthinking something here. Definetely your “big point” is no point at all. The weak spot is the whole sci-fi Tesla thing in general, but there is nothing wrong with the particular thing you point out.
    Angier night for night falls into the tank and is afterwards discarded of, Borden happens to be there and witness it. There’s no hole in that, you can delete this entry.

    • adamkadmon says:

      Why would I delete the entry?

      “Angier night for night falls into the tank and is afterwards discarded of, Borden happens to be there and witness it. There’s no hole in that” – I agree. The hole is: how does the duplicated Angier know that Borden has witnessed it and so not show himself?

  10. eric says:

    There is a simple answer to the question (namely, that Angier has spies, having learned to be much more thorough and careful), but it requires a cheat (lack of support in the narrative).

    What’s neat about this reading is that the visceral reactions you get prove your point. Even if you’re wrong, you’re right.

    • adamkadmon says:

      Eric, I am not debunking – I repeat, this is one of my favourite movies, and I think I have pointed to another level of interpretation which I think the authors intended. No anger. No negative criticism at all, in fact.

      If I have missed the simple answer that “Angier has spies”, show me where in the film this is asserted. If this were the case, why would Nolan show that the stage crew were blind? As you yourself say, it requires a logical “cheat” in the viewer, and this is my whole point. The film, on a meta level, is about how movies (and stories more generally) are a kind of magic trick.

  11. adhokshid says:

    I honestly dont know why u want to crash with epicness angier must’ve seen through borden’s disguise he must’ve appeared at the balcony and then hid himself till the crowds attention went to borden screaming the one thing i don’t understand is that was there a real angier bcoz the first time the angier in the box kills the other one but subsequently the one in the box dies every day so either he puts a clone in the box everyday or the original angier died that day

  12. KoreArabin says:

    I assumed that the Angier who falls into the tank shares a consciousness with the Angier who appears on the balcony; they must have the same mind/thoughts/consciousness etc, otherwise Angier’s statement to the effect that he can be the one in the tank or the one on the balcony on any given night would make no sense.

    The Angier in the tank saw Borden through the glass as soon as he fell into the water. Presumably this would be shared instantaneously with the Angier who appears on the balcony, through their shared consciousness. So the Angier on the balcony simply hides rather than appearing triumphantly, and sneaks off, leaving Borden to carry the can for murdering the Angier in the tank.

    • But that consciousness is shared until the very moment that the copy is created, therefore the copy at the balcony should not have any knowledge of what happened to Angier under the stage.
      Otherwise Angier would have suffered the death of all his clones… and there is no indication of that in the movie, especially there is no suggestion of such link when he kills his clone with his gun.

  13. I find it hilarious the reactions you get from uncultured or even stupid little minds here.
    The literacy in this country is really going to hell. I would expect the “this is just a movie” reactions from a 10 year old brat, not from adults who are supposed to have passed basic literature classes in high school. Most answers are non-answers and I would bet that none of the haters actually read what you wrote.
    With this kind of critical thinking, no wonder our world is going to hell.

    I haven’t realized that plot hole and I will have to rewatch it to confirm your observations…

  14. I really love your analysis of the movie. I agree that your thoughts might be the correct interpretation of the movie. Keep up the good work.

  15. tekshi says:

    Bit late here but just saying, Angier most likely saw through Borden’s disguise when he picked him from the crowd which then let his clone know Borden was going to go after him this time.

  16. Man-Man says:

    In the novel, Angier plans on retiring by faking his own death. In the film, Angier states that he’s only going to do a run of 100 shows.

    My interpretation of Angier not appearing on the balcony was that he had planned to disappear (retire by faking his own death), and later assume the identity of Lord Colderdale. The fact that Borden happened to be backstage when Angier-1 drowned may or may not have been a happy coincidence. If it was planned that Borden would be backstage, then framing Borden was Angier’s final revenge.

  17. Demetra niko says:

    I don’t get it???

  18. James says:

    To the author – interesting analysis of the film, and it’s potential message (which brought me here) however, I think you have over-analyzed a simpler explaination of the story.

    My understanding, was that Angier used the secret scientific properties of his machine (of which there was no other machine known to the general public) to first of all fool the public and Borden, into thinking his machine was an illusion (the bait on the hook). He then limited the performances to 100 in order to ensure publicity and a rush for seats, which would ensure Borden’s appearance (reeling in the fish). I also think that this tactic had a double purpose, which was to first of all beat his rival publically, and then shockingly die at the height of his success, therefore not only making his reputation immortal (cite Houdini), but extracting a death sentance on Borden by framing him in circumstance as his final revenge (fish caught). Angier’s secret machine is the masterstroke as only he knows that his machine is real and that he will survive (technically speaking). How much of the entire performance (of 100 days) was set up just to frame Borden remains open to debate, however Angier’s revenge was definitely a purpose, therefore he was waiting for him and as soon as he had him on stage, simply hid from the public, to Borden’s doom.

    My interpretation of Angier’s story surrounding that scene is based on these elements:

    1) his machine from Tesla cloned identical copies of whatever was put inside it, and teleported these copies a good distance from the actual machine. Thus his appearance point (after teleported replication) wasn’t known and he could choose whether to appear or not.

    2) Borden and Angier had spent the first part of their careers working together, living together and being disguised on stage together. I think Angier would have recognised him very easily and known before he was cloned, that Borden had walked into his trap. He couldn’t reveal that fact however for obvious reasons when Borden was on stage.

    3) The blind stagehands also proved an infallible defense in Borden’s guilt as they could neither see the real result of what the machine could do (so were totally necessary anyway), nor could they bear witness to anything Borden said.

    Whether my interpretation is what the director intended or not, I think it was a brilliant stich-up!

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