Alibi V.26 No.46 • Nov 16-22, 2017 

Film Review

Dealt

Magic-minded documentary switches hands on audiences

Dealt ()

Directed by Luke Korem

“Pick a card, any card.”
“Pick a card, any card.”

Stage magic, despite occasional, fleeting moments of coolness (“The Magician” starring Bill Bixby, David Copperfield getting engaged to Claudia Schiffer, David Blaine before he became an “endurance artist,” Now You See Me), is a fundamentally dorky enterprise. (See for reference: “Chris Angel: Mindfreak,” Doug Henning guesting on “The Osmond Family Christmas Special,” David Blaine sitting in a Plexiglas box for 44 days and Now You See Me 2.) But close-up card magic is a different thing entirely: an undeniably jaw-dropping exhibition of dexterity and skill with nary a top hat or magic wand in sight.

Richard Turner, the charismatic and intriguing character at the center of the documentary Dealt, is not a close-up magician. Despite being widely acknowledged as one of the finest practitioners of the craft, he refuses the term. He calls himself a “card mechanic.” He has the ability to “fix” any card game through sleight of hand, distraction and manipulation. He’s able to perform “tricks” that even the best of magicians can’t, because he’s actually performing the tricks that gambling cheats employ. He can force cards, do a perfect cut, deal from the middle of the deck—the kinds of things that are designed to evade the professional scrutiny of Las Vegas pit bosses and casino cameras. It’s a skill Turner’s been showing off on stages, at conventions and on TV shows since the ’60s.

The crazy thing is, Turner is completely blind. Or is he? Yeah, he is. He’s been partially-to-completely blind since childhood thanks to a degenerative eye disorder. But such is his skill at cards that few in his audiences actually believe he can’t see. No small wonder. The man is obsessive-compulsive about playing cards. They never stray from his fingertips. Never. “I have a two-to-three-pack-a-day a habit,” admits Turner. “I used to have a four-to-six-pack a day habit.” Were Dealt simply a mind-over-matter story of overcoming adversity and handicap, it would be enough. But the film shuffles the deck, flipping between showcasing Turner’s world-renowned skills, acknowledging his influences (the TV show “Maverick,” magic icon Professor Dai Vernon) and watching the man create his own self-edited autobiography.

As much as Turner dislikes the term “magician,” he hates the term “blind” even worse. Turner’s sister has the same degenerative eye disease and is interviewed about how using a guide dog, working around her handicap and operating in the real world has made her life a success. Turner, on the other hand, has spent his life all but refusing to admit that he can’t see. “I don’t like sympathy,” growls the 63-year-old. “And I don’t like the theme ‘handicap makes good.’” As a teenager, Turner was a rock climber, a motorcycle rider, a karate fighter. “He refused to be like any other ordinary blind person,” recalls a high school friend, who pauses before adding, “He did stuff he really shouldn’t have.” Eventually, of course, Rick funneled all of his nervous, rebellious energy into cards, using his tactile skills to become a master pasteboard manipulator.

Admirable as all of his life’s achievements are, there’s a certain amount of denial at work in Turner’s life—and it’s here that Dealt finds its dramatic undercurrent. Our subject bristles whenever anyone mentions he’s blind, as if the understanding instantly translates to pity. As a kid he refused to learn braille. “That’s for blind people,” he barked. But it’s obvious Turner couldn’t get through life without the patient assistance of his dedicated wife and loving son.

Filmmaker Luke Korem (Lord Montagu) keeps on his subject, admiring but never aggrandizing. Gradually, the film finds Turner softening his stance a bit, still unwaveringly proud but accepting his vulnerabilities more than he might have in the past. It’s this thread that makes Dealt something more than just a stylish ode to the skillful art of prestidigitation—which, in and of itself, ain’t a bad thing.