Patrick Magee in One Shot

The stage and film actor encapsulated in one shot from Lucio Fulci's "The Black Cat."
John Menick

One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie. 

It must have been a familiar scene for actor Patrick Magee. Here he was again playing an aging bachelor, surrounded by audio recording paraphernalia, listening to voices out of the past. The first time was on stage at the Royal Court Theater in 1958: a different room, different audio equipment, playing a different aging bachelor. The play was Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, in which the decrepit, solitary Krapp listens to tape recordings of his younger, sometimes comically confident self. Krapp, caustic and disillusioned, has diminished since making his first recordings, growing ever more contemptuous of his youthful enthusiasms. Though the role was played by many great actors, including John Hurt, Michael Gambon, and Harold Pinter, Beckett wrote the part for Magee, or more specifically for “Magee’s distinctively Irish voice, which seemed to capture a sense of deep world-weariness, sadness, ruination, and regret.” During the two decades since Krapp, Magee shuttled between low and high fare, balancing Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964) against more upmarket productions like Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963). (For better or worse, most audiences might remember him for his role as a droog victim in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange.) But as the seventies ended, Magee’s drinking took its toll, and the number of prestige pictures dwindled. Then, one late summer in 1980, Magee again found himself alone with recording equipment, this time in the so-so horror film The Black Cat (1981) directed by Lucio Fulci, a.k.a. “the Godfather of Gore.” Magee was not Fulci’s first or even second choice for the role. Those would have been the British horror vets Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance, both of whom turned Fulci down. It’s odd, then, that The Black Cat is so caught up with Krapp-like tape obsessions, feeling at times like a gothic Krapp Redux. Magee plays Professor Miles, a sixtyish medium and necro-audiophile who spends his evenings making electronic voice phenomena recordings at the local cemetery. (He presses “record” on his tape recorder and ghost voices take over the soundtrack.) Jaundice eyed, bad tempered, Magee’s Miles sounds as if he is in secret communication with Magee’s Krapp. Here is Miles: “That was so long ago. We can’t go back in time.” And here is Krapp: “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness.” His best years perhaps gone, Magee would appear in one more film, Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981), directed by yet another infamous director, Walerian Borowczyk. He would then die a year later, age sixty, leaving behind, like Krapp, an archive of youthful triumph shading into ruin.

1. Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, Grove Press, New York, 1996, p. 398. 

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