The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, 1964. 9/10

Tony Randall stars as a mysterious carnival performer who saves a town. How? With magic, of course! With a bit of The Wizard Of Oz theme of self-discovery, the fantasy content is highly symbolic as well as surreal. Also featuring Barbara Eden as town librarian Angela, with her son Mike (Kenin Tate); plus Arthur O’Connell as chief bad guy Clint Stark, John Ericson, and Noah Berry, Jr.

This is so well-conceived that there’s barely a bad scene. Randall creates an absolutely mythic role; with so many aspects to look at. The early 1900s atmosphere, just out of frontier days–and so still in effect a Western. And a familiar Western theme–townspeople under the thumb of exploitative movers and shakers.

The locals themselves, much like in 1974’s Blazing Saddles, are played for every trick and hint of oddity. Then, the outsider, Lao himself (again like the new sheriff in Blazing Saddles) literally comes riding into town to change things up.

The gullibility, ignorance, and level of comeuppance (for Stark and his jerks) plays with consistent anarchy throughout. Only the out-and-out good guys, Angela, Mike, and the newspaper editor, Ed Cunningham (Ericson), are spared raking over the coals. Even the mythlogical characters are often off-key, out-of-it, goofy, and just fun.

If the movie’s taken on it’s own terms, it’s hard to find fault.. The special effects are actually quite good; the huge snake, for example, is downright convincingly weird. Likewise, when Medusa turns the haughty woman to stone, she really looks it.

A magic mirror (not Medusa’s), is, of course, a movie screen. It shows a bunch of apocalyptic stuff–more or less an indication of where we’re headed (the town, in the literal sense) if we don’t shape up. This is clever, as the screen indeed passes for an illusion to the characters, but it’s a bit of plausible futurism to us.

At the same time, the carnival motif serves as a metaphor. The linking of magic with gratification and disappointment gives an intriguing look at the presence of deception in the midst of reality. When, Oz-like, Lao tells the boy that, in effect, magic is everywhere, we’re touching at the theme. In a handful of dust “You see not the dust, but a mystery.” True enough–isn’t creation itself magical? And mysterious? (Later this message is repeated, with simply “life” as the miracle).

Fittingly, Lao’s carnival looks like a squatter’s camp from the outside, but is a labyrinth of wonders within. Translation: things aren’t as they appear. We could even take the set-up psychologically; inside of the person (the tent) are the more interesting soul and mind (the magical stuff). Angela notices that the place seems bigger on the inside. Metaphorically, of course, that’s true.

Lao plays both a good and bad witch. When the bad guys junk Cunningham’s press, Lao summons new machinery. Ultimately, Stark avails himself of Zeus’s services; at that point, we know that the jerk is weakening. Indeed, Stark’s takeover plan is soundly defeated; Stark admits (thanks to Lao) that he ‘wins by losing.’

Ironically, he touts the coming of the railroad as a boon for everyone. True enough, but doesn’t that bring a whole new set of problems? Meanwhile, a couple of die-hard bad guys, their boss defanged, figure to bring down Lao. An instantly-appearing dragon wards them off; it grows before our eyes into a city-destroying monster. It continues morphing, sprouting the seven heads (faces) of Lao.

What a climax! Even Lao is in danger until a rainstorm reduces the monster to the little lizard it grew from. Very weirdly, Lao uses a rainmaking machine to summon that–with its flurry of fireworks. Maybe that device ties into the flim-flam culture of the time, or we can see it as a sort of last-ditch reserve element in Lao’s otherwise spiritual arsenal.

Forgot to mention the Ed/Angela romance. With the beguiling Eden, it can’t but be noticeable. In any case, although it’s clearly a tacked-on subplot, it doesn’t get in the way. Naturally, after much hesitation, Angela ends up in his arms.

Despite his masterful performance, a somewhat thorny issue is the casting of Randall as Lao. Couldn’t we have an Asian guy in Lao’s role? For that matter, why should the magician be Chinese anyway? Sure, it’s superficially more exotic, but, in that case, how about a Mexican or Native American (nothing out of the ordinary for 1900 Arizona)? With all that said, the movie works because of him; he just can’t not entertain.

This is fantasy in the truest sense. Filtered a bit through the period lens, and branching off into (often hilarious) satire, The Seven Faces is light-hearted escapism which nonetheless contains a great deal of cautionary wisdom. Highly recommended . 9/10.

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