Who Was the Better Magician in 'The Prestige'? A Way-Too-Detailed Analysis

"Are you watching closely?" That's the opening line from The Prestige, and it's something I repeat to myself throughout the film's subsequent two hours and 10 minutes, every single time I see it. I've watched The Prestige a few times recently, along with several other Christopher Nolan movies, all in anticipation of the director's newest film, Tenet, which is supposedly coming out July 31, just two weeks later than its originally scheduled release date.

Whenever I revisit Nolan's 2006 film about rival 19th-century magicians, I always find plenty to admire—whether it's the two lead performances, the handsome costuming and cinematography, or the elaborate illusions, which viewers get to witness as if they're in the audience at a grand theater. But there's one thing about The Prestige that always leaves me a bit unsettled. I can't decide who is the better magician: Christian Bale's Alfred Borden, or Hugh Jackman's Robert Angier?

For anyone who has yet to catch a show at the Pantages or the Grand Scala in Victorian London, The Prestige stars Bale as Borden, a working-class magician who goes by the stage name "The Professor," and Jackman as Angier, an elitist stage illusionist known to audiences as "The Great Danton."

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Sir Michael Caine and Hugh Jackman star as John Cutter and Robert Angier, respectively, in Christopher Nolan's film "The Prestige." Buena Vista Pictures

Borden argues that "a real magician tries to invent something new, something that other magicians are gonna scratch their heads over." He's a purist, someone who guards his secrets more closely than anything else, and seems to think that a trick is only worth doing if it costs the magician something. Angier, on the other hand, is more of a showman, and prioritizes putting on a flashy spectacle for his audiences.

Written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, and based upon Christopher Priest's 1995 epistolatory novel of the same name, The Prestige centers on these two magicians and their obsessions with besting each other. They start out as colleagues working alongside a more prominent magic man, but after a water-tank trick goes tragically wrong and results in the death of Angier's wife (played by Piper Perabo), the two become bitter enemies.

Of course, since it's a Nolan film, this story isn't told in straightforward fashion. There are multiple timelines, several fake beards and a subplot in which David Bowie plays Nicola Tesla. Throughout the movie, relationships are destroyed, characters switch allegiances and Borden and Angier are always trying to outdo and humiliate each other, ready to enact some scheme and sleight of hand. It's the kind of movie that reveals something new with every rewatch, but it doesn't outright declare who is the better master of magic.

So, I've decided to break down the film's major tricks and determine which magician did them better. Are you watching closely?

The Birdcage Illusion

When we first see the ol' disappearing-bird trick, Borden's working as an assistant to another magician. During a small show early into the film, Borden places a birdcage onto a pedestal, and the bird disappears as a magician (J. Paul Moore) slams his hand into the pedestal. He then takes a flower off of his lapel, and a handkerchief from his pocket, and suddenly the bird is back. A young woman named Sarah (Rebecca Hall) is in the audience with her nephew, who cries that the magician's killed the bird.

Borden tries to comfort the boy, and shows him the bird that suddenly appeared, to prove that it's safe. But the kid's too sharp for that—he asks where the bird's brother is.

And the boy's right, the bird that "reappears" is actually a completely different bird from the one that we first see in the cage. In order to do the trick, the magician uses a collapsable birdcage that disappears into a trapdoor in the pedestal. The bird dies in the process, but there's always another bird ready to pose as the bird that seemingly vanished.

Now, in an effort to kickstart his career as "The Great Danton," Angier plans to do the same trick, but in a way that's sleeker and much less harmful to birds. His stage engineer, Cutter (Michael Caine), provides Angier with a contraption that attaches to his arms and back, and can be worn underneath his coat. The way that this new version of the trick works is that Angier calls two volunteers up to the stage and asks them to put their hands on either sides of the bird's cage. Suddenly, the cage instantly disassembles and disappears down Angier's sleeves, thanks to the device.

The bird, meanwhile, is able to get away without being killed, and then reappears because Angier's got a piece of twine tied around the bird's foot. Ultimately, the whole thing's flashier, cleaner and more suspenseful than the version that Borden's involved with.

This revamped illusion is a hit with audiences—that is, until Borden crashes Angier's show to sabotage the trick. Disguised with a fake beard, Borden poses as one of the volunteers to hold part of the cage. By the time Angier realizes what's wrong, it's too late. Borden smashes the cage, killing the bird and breaking the other volunteer's fingers.

Who Did the Trick Better? Even taking the broken fingers into account, we have to go with Angier here.

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Christian Bale stars as Alfred Borden/Fallon in Christopher Nolan's 2006 film "The Prestige." Buena Vista Pictures

The Transported Man

Throughout the film, Borden teases a big trick that he wants to make sure audiences are ready for. It's called "The Transported Man," and in it, he appears to transport himself from one empty wardrobe to another. Borden bounces a ball across a stage, enters one wardrobe, and emerges from the other almost instantly to catch the ball. Angier is baffled when he sees it, and calls it the greatest trick he's ever seen.

Determined to steal the trick and make it his own, Angier asks Cutter to figure out how Borden does "The Transported Man." The engineer insists that Borden uses a double, but Angier doesn't buy it. He insists that it's the same man coming out of the second wardrobe that walks into the first. (That right there, reader, is a hint to the movie's big twist.)

Regardless of how Borden does it, Cutter says that if Angier wants to try his own take on the trick, then they'll have to find him a double. So they hire a passable doppelgänger—a drunkard named Gerald Root (also played by Jackman)—and introduce the Great Danton's signature flair.

When Angier debuts his version of "The Transported Man," all the audience sees onstage is a pair of door frames several feet apart. Standing on one side of one door, Angier tosses his top hat in the air. He then opens the door and drops beneath the stage via a trapdoor the audience can't see; Root then rises from below the stage via a lift, appears at the other door frame, and catches the top hat.

The trick's a massive hit. Again, it's got the showmanship and drama that Borden's version is lacking. In slow-walking the build-up, Angier gives audiences a sense of anticipation, and a moment to really appreciate what they're seeing. Unfortunately, because of how his trick is designed, Angier's got to take his bows beneath the stage, and not in front of his crowds—something Borden relishes because he, of course, can instantly recognize that Angier is using a double.

Eventually, Borden has to once again ruin Angier's success—it's simply what he does. During one night's performance, Angier goes down through the trapdoor, except the cushion that he usually lands on is missing, so he breaks his leg. And instead of Root going up to the stage, it's Borden, who greets Angier's audience and takes the opportunity to advertise for his rendition of "The Transported Man." Pretty ruthless.

Who Did the Trick Better? Although Angier knows how to keep an audience captivated, Borden's version is clean and simple. It also doesn't rely on the cooperation of a pickled, failed actor.

The Real Transported Man

Borden manages to convince Angier that the secret to his "Transported Man" is a machine built by Nikola Tesla—yes, that Nikola Tesla. It later turns out that Borden's trick has nothing to do with Tesla, but no matter. After a lengthy sojourn to America to find the secretive scientist, Angier gets exactly what he was hoping for: an expensive and flashy machine to one-up Borden.

One thing, though—the machine actually works. It clones whatever is within its electromagnetic field and drops the subject a short distance away. Which means that Angier is actually able to become a transported man. But he can't have multiples of himself walking around; he needs to preserve the illusion. That's why he decides to use another trapdoor, one that opens above a water tank. Every time Angier performs "The Real Transported Man," one version of him is teleported to another section of the theater, while the other is dropped into a locked water tank and drowns.

Who Did the Trick Better? As far as we can tell, Borden doesn't really get a chance to upgrade his "Transported Man" in response to Angier's, so this round goes to Angier. Besides, his machine actually works, which is pretty darn magical, even if it's technically science.

The Rivalry Turns Deadly

Again, Borden can't resist trying to tamper with Angier's success. So he starts snooping around backstage during a performance, after spotting the trapdoor. When Borden gets below the stage, he sees Angier fall through the trapdoor and into the tank. Not knowing what Angier has been up to, Borden naturally assumes that something's gone wrong and he actually tries to save his rival by breaking the tank with an axe. Borden can't break the glass in time, so the Angier double winds up drowning and Borden gets accused of killing him.

Borden is found guilty and eventually hanged for killing Angier. Before he heads to the gallows though, Borden realizes that something's off. Throughout the film, in between cutting back and forth to the peak of Borden and Angier's rivalry, we keep returning to Borden in prison; while he's there, he keeps hearing about some mysterious guy named Lord Caldlow, who would love to buy the secrets to all of Borden's secrets, including "The Transported Man." Ahead of his execution, Borden's visited by Lord Caldlow himself, and it turns out to be none other than Angier. Borden might not understand how his enemy pulled off the switch, but he knows that he's been fooled and will hang for a crime he didn't commit.

Who Did the Trick Better? Well, "the trick" in this instance is really framing a guy for murder, which Angier succeeds in doing. So... Angier?

The Final Twist

After Borden's hanging, we see Angier—made up like Lord Caldlow—in the basement of the theater where he performed "The Real Transported Man." Suddenly, he's shot—and it's Borden who steps out of the shadows, holding the gun.

Here, in the movie's final moments (and the final moments of Angier's life), we finally hear the secret behind Borden's version of "The Transported Man." He really did use a double, like Cutter said—a twin brother that no one knew about, and who often posed as Borden's right-hand man and stage engineer, Fallon. (The other Borden brother wears a fake beard and makeup, and never really speaks when he's Fallon, even though he's seen often in the film.)

The Borden brothers would trade places regularly, so one of them would sometimes appear to be the real Borden, and the other would appear to be Fallon. "We each had half of a full life," the remaining Borden brother tells Angier, "which was enough for us." He adds that sacrifice is the price of a good trick.

Angier counters that he's sacrificed plenty. He spent a fortune on Tesla's machine and achieving the notoriety that he had as the Great Danton. Plus, he was constantly cloning and killing himself, and was never sure if he'd be the "Transported Man" or if he'd end up in the water tank, drowning. He knows about sacrifice, he says, just before dying; and it was worth it to Angier, just to be able to see the look on the audience's faces.

Ultimately, Borden's love of magic is focused on the craft. Both are talented in their own ways, but there can only be one better magician.

Who Did the Trick Better? True, Angier framed Borden for murder, but Borden outmaneuvers him with the trusty "I've-been-hiding-a-secret-twin-brother-for-my-entire-professional-career" trick. Angier doesn't have a counter, so this round goes to Borden.

So, who is the better magician in The Prestige? Now that we've gone through the film round by round and know all of the secrets behind the different versions of "The Transported Man," we have to give the edge to Borden. Angier won more individual match-ups in this exercise, but Borden seemingly devoted his whole adult life to one trick that Angier spends much of the film trying to eclipse. Plus, Borden's "Transported Man" really was a trick, and not some miracle of science. It also doesn't hurt Borden's case that the movie ends with Angier dead and at least one Borden brother alive and reunited with his young daughter.

Angier appears to be the better showman, but when it comes to "The Transported Man," he's often just like any other member of the audience—awestruck and asking himself, "How did he do that?"