What happens when documentary filmmakers—whose mission is to probe, explore, and reveal—take as their subject one of the world’s greatest living magicians, whose life and art are basically off limits to probing, exploration and revelation? More than a decade in the making, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay is the captivating result of this curious conundrum: a mesmerizing journey into the world of modern magic and the small circle of eccentrics who were its perpetual devotees.
At its center is the multitalented Ricky Jay, a best-selling author and historian, an acclaimed actor, a leading collector of antiquarian books and artifacts, but above all a conjurer capable of creating a profound sense of wonder and disbelief in even the most jaded of audiences. In his extraordinary—and extraordinarily popular—one-man shows Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants and Ricky Jay: On the Stem, he proved himself to be the contemporary embodiment of an elite lineage, offering audiences not only exhilarating entertainment, but also a rare glimpse of a secret, lost world.
Told largely in Ricky’s own inimitable voice, Deceptive Practice traces the story of his achievement, from his early apprenticeship, beginning at age 4, with his grandfather Max Katz, an accomplished amateur magician, as well as Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini, Francis Carlyle, and Roy Benson, all of whom were among the best magicians of the 20th century. Above all it celebrates the remarkable lives of Ricky’s two primary mentors of his young adulthood, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. Of the latter, Ricky recalls: “For Charlie a good evening could be asking you to do the same shuffle 16,000 times … It was just endless the variations and the craziness, but it was often as close to pure joy as anything I can imagine.”
The film weaves together stunning performance footage from his one-man shows and classic TV appearances, and also includes friends and collaborators such as Steve Martin (who joins him in a hilarious turn on a ’70s vintage Dinah Shore TV show) and David Mamet, who says of Ricky: “He’s devoted to that theater that he alone sees. He has the ideal of magic in his mind to which he’s devoted his life: to teaching it, to performing it, to perfecting it, to researching it.”
By the end of the film, viewers not only have a deep appreciation for the arduous and arcane demands of the magician’s craft, but also for the use of language and storytelling central to the art. And of where this ancient tradition is headed, that shall remain a mystery.