In the Latin Quarter of Paris, sculptor Margaret Dauncey is injured when the top of the huge statue of a faun (see poster) she is working on breaks off and falls on her. After successful surgery by brilliant Dr. Arthur Burdon saves her from paralysis, she and Burdon fall in love.
The surgery is watched by various doctors and others, including Oliver Haddo, a hypnotist, magician and student of medicine (a character in Maugham's original novel based on real-life occultist Aleister Crowley). Later, in the Library of the Arsenal, Haddo finds what he has been searching for: a magic formula for the creation of human life. One of the ingredients is the "heart blood of a Maiden". He rips out the page and presents the old book to Dr. Porhoet, Margaret's uncle and guardian, who has also been looking for it.
When Margaret, Burdon and Dr. Porhoet go to the Fair at Leon de Belfort, they encounter Haddo, whom Margaret dislikes immediately. When Dr. Porhoet claims that the snake charmers use harmless snakes, Haddo refutes him and demonstrates his powers by letting a deadly horned viper bite him. He then magically makes the wound disappear. Porhoet remains unconvinced until the discarded viper strikes a young woman performer. Burdon has to rush her to a hospital.
Later, Haddo visits Margaret uninvited. He hypnotizes her and tells her to concentrate on her statue. It seems to come to life to preside over an orgy. Critic Carlos Clarens calls this the high point of the film: "a nightmarish sequence in which the hypnotised heroine (Alice Terry) see herself in the midst of an orgiastic rite presided over by Pan himself, a prancing naked satyr played by Stowitts, the American dancer at the Folies Bergere."
Two days before her wedding to Burdon, Margaret receives a note from Haddo, asking her to see him the next morning. She tries to resist the summons, but fails. On the day of the wedding, Burdon learns that Margaret has married Haddo instead. Porhoet is convinced it was against his niece's will, and Burdon tries to track them down.
Burdon eventually encounters the couple at a casino in Monte Carlo. He and Porhoet free Margaret while Haddo is away. Porhoet places her in a sanatorium to recover.
Haddo, however, finds her and takes her to his laboratory in a tower. Burdon and Porhoet employ a guide to take them there. Just as Haddo is about to stab a bound Margaret, Burdon bursts in. After a violent struggle, Haddo falls into a huge fire and is killed. Margaret emerges from her trance and is reunited with her true love. Porhoet finds the page with the formula. He burns it and sets the laboratory afire as well.
The movie was produced by MGM and ran 77 minutes, but was filmed at Ingram's studios in Nice. Ostensibly in black-and-white, the film is in fact in various sepia tones. It is a silent film with various soundtracks having accompanied it.
According to Carlos Clarens, "made for Metro in France, away from all interference, The Magician was saluted upon release by a barrage of negative criticism, mostly on grounds of tastelessness, that sealed the picture's doom. The still photographs, all that are available to the present day, show Ingram at the height of his pictorial talent."
However, it has been pointed out that "along with the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaborations, The Magician was one of the few serious American horror movies in a time of spoofs." The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror says: "Its view of occult evil is distinctly oldfashioned by comparison with, say, Edward G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934 film), yet absolutely in keeping with the darkly Germanic tone Ingram brought to the film, not least by casting Wegener - director and star of The Golem: How He Came Into the World(1920) - as Oliver Haddo, the mad sorcerer obsessed by a dream of creating artificial life. Animation of his homunculus requires the heart-blood of a virgin, and at the inevitable fairground (echoing The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Ger: Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, 1919) he happens on Terry, and duly abducts her on the eve of her wedding. In one sense the film is merely a series of stagy tableaux as the heroine is strapped to the operating table, the magician prepares himself, the hero (Petrovich) arrives for a fight to the death, an angry mob goes on the warpath, and both the laboratory and castle go up in the traditional holocaust. But Ingram was a supreme visual stylist, and the film is also a series of electrifying images. Not the least astonishing is the stunningly lit sequence where Wegener hypnotizes Terry and - with the fiery furnace roaring beneath the laboratory floor implying that she is already in hell - she finds herself in a hallucinatory bacchanal in which she is wooed, with a heady eroticism perhaps explained by the fact that the film was shot far from Hollywood at the Victorine Studios in Nice, by a statue of Pan come to life (and played virtually nude by Stowitts, an American dancer from the Folies Bergere). It seems almost certain that the laboratory sets and gestures must have been a formative influence on James Whale's conception of Frankenstein (1931 film). The assistant designer here was Michael Powell." Alice Terry as Margaret Dauncey
Paul Wegener as Oliver Haddo
Iván Petrovich as Dr. Arthur Burdon
Firmin Gémier as Dr. Porhoet
Gladys Hamer as Susie Boyd, Margaret's painter friend
Henry Wilson as Haddo's Servant
Hubert I. Stowitts as Dancing Faun (as Stowitts)
A young Michael Powell made a brief appearance in a comedic role and also acted as assistant director.
Silent film composer Robert Israel created a score for the Turner Classic Movies reissue of the movie. The Ragged Ragtime Band created and performed a score for The Magician at the Brighton Fringe Festival in 2012. The Nenagh Silent Film Festival commissioned Eoin Mac Ionmhain to compose and premiere a live score for The Magician in 2013.