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.