Charles "Corky" Withers has just failed in his first attempt at professional magic. His mentor "Merlin" (E. J. André) says that he needs to have a better show business gimmick. A year later, Corky comes back as a combination magician and ventriloquist with a foul-mouthed dummy named Fats and is a huge success. His powerful agent Ben Greene is on the verge of signing Corky for his own television show, but Corky bails out for the Catskills, where he grew up, claiming to be "afraid of success." In truth, he does not want to take the TV network's required medical examination because doctors might find out that he suffers from severe issues, and that even off-stage he cannot control Fats (a manifestation of Corky's id).
In the Catskills, he reunites with his high-school crush, Peggy Ann Snow, who is stuck in a passionless marriage with Corky's friend from high school, Duke. A magic trick with a deck of cards charms Peg into thinking they are soulmates. She and Corky have sex, which sparks the jealousy not only of Peggy's tough-guy husband but also the dummy Fats. Greene arrives unexpectedly, having tracked Corky down. After a tense confrontation, in which Greene discovers the truth about Corky's mental state, the agent demands that Corky get help. Fats, however, convinces Corky to kill Greene. Corky does this by using Fats' hard, wooden head. He then removes all of Greene's identification and drags the corpse to the lake. When Corky tries to dispose of the body, however, Greene suddenly lunges at him, still alive.
Corky, after an intense fight, manages to drown him. The next morning, Fats becomes even more possessive and jealous when Corky says that he plans to leave Fats behind so that he and Peggy can honeymoon by themselves. Duke returns from his trip earlier than expected. He suspects his wife cheated on him and wants to have a talk with Corky on the lake. Rather than confront him, Duke awkwardly confides to Corky that he loves Peggy and is worried about losing her. Duke suddenly spots Greene's body on the edge of the lake. They row toward it. Duke, believing Greene could still be alive, sends Corky to get help. Curious, he decides to search Corky's cabin. Fats kills him with "help" from Corky. (The dummy stabs Duke while Corky is covered by a curtain behind him.)
An increasingly deranged Corky manages to pull himself together and persuade Peg to run away with him. But she insists on waiting to tell Duke face to face. She thinks everything is fine until Fats "comes alive" and reveals that Corky's card trick is only a ruse he uses to seduce women, and that Peg is only the latest of his conquests. Repulsed, she rejects Corky and locks herself in her bedroom. Fats says that, from this point on, he will make the decisions in Corky's life. He immediately asserts this new authority by ordering Corky to kill Peg. Corky, turning on the charm and using Fats' voice, apologizes to Peggy from in front of her locked door.
A short while later, Corky returns with a bloodstained knife. Fats seems pleased — until it is revealed that the blood on the knife is Corky's, who has fatally stabbed himself so that he won't kill anyone else. As a result, Fats also feels faint. They wonder which of them will die first. Moments later, Peggy returns to their cabin, happily calling out that she has changed her mind and has decided to run away with Corky after all. As she speaks, her voice changes into a caricature that sounds like a female Fats.Anthony Hopkins as Corky (and the voice of Fats)
Ann-Margret as Peggy Ann Snow
Burgess Meredith as Ben Greene
Ed Lauter as Duke
E. J. André as Merlin
Jerry Houser as Taxi Driver
David Ogden Stiers as Todson
Lillian Randolph as Sadie
Joseph E. Levine bought the film rights to Goldman's novel for $1 million. This included Goldman's fee to write the screenplay.
The first draft was written for first-choice director Norman Jewison. Jewison wanted Jack Nicholson to star but Nicholson turned it down, claiming he did not want to wear a hairpiece. Richard Attenborough, who had just made A Bridge Too Far with Goldman and Levine, then agreed to direct.
Gene Wilder was the original choice for Corky, and director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter William Goldman wanted him, but producer Joseph E. Levine refused on grounds he wanted no comedians in the movie to distract from the serious nature of the story.
Laurence Olivier was originally offered the role of the agent but was unable to do it so Burgess Meredith was cast instead. Meredith got the role after walking into 21 one night when Joe E. Levine was there – Levine cast him on the spot. Meredith modelled his performance on the agent Swifty Lazar, even shaving his head to look like Lazar. "I tried to get his cool, understated manner, his sharp clothes and, most of all, his way of speaking softly so that you've got to lean over to hear what he's saying," said Meredith.
Goldman later wrote about the film that "Burgess Meredith was perfect and Tony Hopkins... was so wonderful here. But running stride for stride with him was Miss Olsson. I think Ann-Margret is the least appreciated emotional actress anywhere."
Ann-Margret and Anthony Hopkins were each paid around $300,000 for their performances.
Exteriors were shot in Ukiah, California.
The film received positive reviews from critics receiving a "certified fresh" 83% on Rotten Tomatoes. Film critic Gene Siskel gave the film a very positive review, and ranked it at #9 on his list of the 10 best films of 1978.
However, The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review 1990 writeup of the film remarks that Hopkins appears stiff in the lead role, but praised the supporting cast: "Ann-Margaret...invests her role with a considerable sparkle. Particularly good is the great and underrated Burgess Meredith whose sharp and alert Hollywood agent is a real plum of a performance. Jerry Goldsmith also adds a fine nervy carnivalesque score." Vincent Canby for The New York Times wrote that "Magic is neither eerie nor effective. It is, however, very heavy of hand."
Goldman received a 1979 Edgar Award, from the Mystery Writers of America, for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. Hopkins received both Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for his role as the tragically disturbed Corky.
The score was composed and conducted by the American composer Jerry Goldsmith. The complete soundtrack was released on CD through Varèse Sarabande in April, 2003 and features twenty-two tracks score at a running time of forty-two minutes. It was subsequently reissued by La-La Land Records.
As 20th Century Fox never owned complete rights to this film (the studio did and still does own the theatrical distribution and music rights), other companies (especially Embassy and nowadays MGM) have been able to release home video versions of Magic under different licenses. However, subsequent legal complications kept the film from being formally reissued on VHS and DVD in the last decade due in part to Embassy Pictures' corporate holdings being divided amongst different entities. Recently the rights were acquired by the American Movie Classics division of AMC Film Holdings, LLC, while TV rights are handled for syndication by Trifecta Entertainment & Media (under Paramount Pictures). An uncut version is currently available on widescreen DVD and Blu-ray.
In 2010, the BBC Radio 4 satirical comedy series The Now Show claimed that Michael Gove looked like a scary ventriloquist puppet. As a result, whenever Gove is referenced, Hugh Dennis does an impression of Fats ordering "Govey" to do things.
In Trailer Park Boys, Bubbles has a ventriloquist dummy named Conky (an allusion to 'Corky', the name of Hopkins' character), and there are several episodes devoted to the puppet making Bubbles go slowly insane. The puppet is thrown into a lake eventually, his demise similar to that of the murder victims in Magic.