Precocious kid Danny Masters (Griffin O'Neal) strolls confidently into a local news office and asks them to arrange for the police to lock him up, handcuffed, in jail. Surprisingly the cops do just that. For you see Danny is no ordinary kid but the super-skilled son of legendary escape artist Harry Masters (Harry Anderson). As Danny reveals via flashback, after his father was killed in suspicious circumstances the boy magician went to stay with distant relatives Aunt Sibyl (Joan Hackett) and Uncle Burke (Gabriel Dell) who perform in a mentalist stage act. In an effort to launch his own act Danny becomes embroiled with the mayor's crooked son, Stu Quinones (Raul Julia). Who coerces Danny to pull off a caper that requires all his ingenuity in order to make it out alive.
Based on a novel by celebrated poet David Wagoner, The Escape Artist was the first in a handful of rare directorial offerings from acclaimed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Father of actresses Emily Deschanel and Zooey Deschanel. At the time Caleb Deschanel was fresh off truly visionary work as D.P. on Carroll Ballard's spellbinding The Black Stallion (1979), shamefully overlooked by the Oscars. Hence Francis Ford Coppola's studio American Zoetrope reunited two-thirds of the dream team behind that instant classic, including co-screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who between this film and E.T. - The Extraterrestrial (1982) was enjoying one heck of a year), to deliver another ambitiously offbeat children's tale.
Indeed The Escape Artist is quite unlike any family film produced by a Hollywood studio before or since. Between Danny's hardboiled narration, the unbalanced electric villainy of Raul Julia's Stu and a pulp plot laced with crooked cops and corrupt politicians that routinely places its child hero in genuine peril, the film comes across like a film noir for kids. Suffused in a peculiar dreamlike intensity that is entirely its own, The Escape Artist looks to visualize Danny's psychological angst via some haunting yet magical sequences. Deschanel knows how to stage a striking set-piece (most notably a suspenseful sequence where Danny's attempt to show-off by escaping a water tank goes horribly wrong). His visual mastery is evident right from the opening frames. As he plays with light and shadow and layers events with candy-coloured flashbacks to Harry Masters' haunting stage act the film achieves a subtle yet surreal delirium, abetted by the evocative production design of Dean Tavoularis and a beautiful score from legendary French composer Georges Delerue.
Although its leisurely episodic nature at times threatens to tread towards portraiture over narrative, the story beguiles throughout, hinging on both boy hero and mature (physically if not emotionally) villain grappling with complicated feelings about imposing fathers and their criminal legacies. To its great credit, rather than pander to mainstream tastes with cutesy antics, the film imbues an outlandish story with compelling seriousness and pulp poetry as well as dry humour. Among its incidental pleasures the film assembles an impressively eclectic cast, including former silent film child star Jackie Coogan as the owner of a magic shop (thus enabling two generations of Addams Family cast members to share screen time), M. Emmet Walsh as a seemingly avuncular cop who turns nasty, future prolific voice actress E.G. Daily as Danny's intended glamorous assistant, John P. Ryan as a neurotic hired thug, Joan Hackett (in her final role), former Bowery Boys Gabriel Dell and Huntz Hall, Teri Garr as Stu's ditzy girlfriend, sharing the screen with Julia the same year they headlined Coppola's lavish folly One from the Heart (1982), and none other than musician, comedian and I Love Lucy icon Desi Arnaz. In an intimidating turn as the corrupt yet seemingly untouchable mayor.
All leave their mark but the leads truly shine. Julia is electric as the volatile and unpredictable Stu, who veers from frightening to sympathetic and back again. Meanwhile young Griffin O'Neal, who never became a child star on the same level as his famous sister Tatum O'Neal, and as his career dwindled into low-budget schlock sadly became better known for his tumultuous personal life, delivers an outstanding turn. Compelling yet low-key as the quirky and personable Danny. Real life magician Ricky Jay, still several years away from launching his own acting career mostly via his association with David Mamet, provided technical assistance to the unshowy but still striking escape sequences. Including the climactic near silent jailbreak-cum-robbery.