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Film review: 'Deceptive Practice' weaves its own kind of magic

Ricky JayEntertainmentConey IslandDinah ShoreEd Sullivan

Regard the hands of Ricky Jay. Watch them making cards do things cards never have done before, things cards didn't even know they could do. And for this master of manipulation, cards are just the beginning.

Seeing is definitely not believing in the wonderfully titled "Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay," directed by Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein. This documentary provides an elegant, enthralling peek behind the curtain and into the you-won't-trust-your-eyes world of this celebrated contemporary conjurer.

"Cards are like living breathing human beings because they give you real pleasure," is how Jay feels about the deck in his hands. "You sit in a room with them for 10 to 15 hours per day, and they become your friends."

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Not that Ricky Jay gives away any secrets either about his trade or his life, but as David Mamet, his frequent collaborator and director of the stage show "Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants" puts it, "The essence of his profession is unknowability. To tell secrets to the uninitiated would be desecration."

Instead, we get to spend 88 minutes in the company of an accomplished and articulate raconteur. And we also get to see a great assortment of vintage clips both of Jay's performances — including a priceless game of three-card monte with Steve Martin on "The Dinah Shore Show" in the 1970s — and the magical predecessors he venerates.

For Jay very much considers himself to be part of what he calls "a sleight of hand continuum that can be traced back more than a century." For him, magical knowledge is transferred one on one in a kind of master/disciple relationship that must be personal if it is to succeed.

That connection started early for Jay, nee Ricky Potash, whose grandfather, Max Katz, was a prominent amateur magician, which meant that Brooklyn-born Ricky did his first show at age 7 and soon was performing in black tie and tails. When he says "magic is my earliest memory, part of my being," he is not exaggerating.

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Katz not only inspired his grandson's interest in magic, he took him to meet with and at times arranged for him to take lessons from some of the great New York City performers of the day, characters every one and people we can see at work in the fascinating historical clips "Deceptive Practice" has assembled.

Meet the gifted Slydini as well as Al Flosso, "the Coney Island fakir," who we see performing the unheard of feat of cracking up the stone-faced TV host Ed Sullivan on camera. There's even footage of the elegant Cardini, the man behind what Jay calls "the greatest act I ever saw. He didn't produce cards; they appeared in his hand, and he tried his best to get rid of them."

After his grandfather died, Jay moved to California to learn from two peerless magicians: Charlie Miller, whose idea of a good evening was "asking you to do the same shuffle 16,000 times," and Dai Vernon, whom Jay says "revolutionized sleight of hand" but had the disconcerting habit of playing his various acolytes against one another.

Jay is such a mesmerizing speaker that we almost regret it when other people appear on camera. And his cast of characters range from Canada Bill Jones, the king of three-card monte hustlers, to Mattias Buchinger, the celebrated "Little Man of Nuremberg."

Fellow magician Michael Weber talks about what it's like being partners with Jay in their Deceptive Practices firm. We don't share all our secrets with each other, he says, and somehow we are not surprised.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay'

No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

Playing Nuart, West Los Angeles.

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