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Ricky Jay conjures up the old razzle daale in ‘Deceptive Practice’

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Kino Lorber presents a documentary directed by Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein. Running time: 88 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at the Music Box.

Updated: July 8, 2013 6:08AM

Legendary magician and sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay has always held his cards close when it comes to his personal life and the secrets of his profession. So don’t expect anything too revealing in the documentary “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.”

What Jay does reveal in this engrossing and entertaining film are the unique and strange subcultures that fed his love of the scam, the flim-flam, the con. Of course, all of this is perfectly legal when it comes to Jay’s chosen profession. But that doesn’t mean he’s not interested in swindlers, pickpockets and deceivers. He’s also a highly regarded author and historian of his field.

It’s a small circle of eccentrics whom Jay fondly remembers: Al Flosso (he performed at Jay’s bar mitzvah), Slydini, Cardini and Jay’s primary mentors Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller. The cast of characters also includes historical figures such as Bill Jones, the king of three-card-monte hustlers, and magician Mattias Buchinger, the celebrated “Little Man of Nuremburg,” who was born without arms and legs.

We meet these artists via archival footage. In one great clip, Flosso, “The Coney Island Fakir,” performs a different kind of magic when he manages the unheard of feat of getting stone-faced TV host Ed Sullivan to crack up multiple times on air. In another amazing clip, there’s Cardini, who according to Jay, “didn’t produce cards; they appeared in his hand, and he tried his best to get rid of them.”

The Brooklyn-born Jay, whose professional life began at age 7, has been around magic all his life. “It’s my earliest memory. Just part of my being,” he says. Wonderful archival footage of the young prodigy proves this claim. His beloved grandfather Max Katz was “an amateur magician on a pretty serious level,” who introduced him to the great performers of the day.

After his grandfather died, Jay moved to California to learn from Vernon, who “revolutionized sleight of hand,” and Miller, whose idea of a fun night was “making you do the same card shuffle 16,000 times.”

With years of practice and mentoring, Jay developed an affinity for the cards: “Cards are like living breathing human beings because they give you real pleasure,” he says. “You sit in a room with them for 10 to 15 hours per day, and they become your friends.”

It all paid off for Jay, who became a regular guest on talk and variety shows. In one clip, a longhaired Jay shares a bill on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” with Kansas and the Sex Pistols. In another funny clip, this time from a Dinah Shore talk show, he tricks comic Steve Martin out of $51. He would go on to develop a secondary career as a character actor in films by his pal David Mamet, whose comments are in­sightful, and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Dick Cavett provides a bit of narration, and there are a few talking heads, but most of the time it’s Jay conversing on screen. His voice is as mesmerizing as his sleight-of-hand trickery, of which there is plenty on display here. It’s done mostly with cards, but one trick described by a British journalist that involves a block of ice will keep you thinking and wondering for days. And that’s exactly the way Jay wants it to be.

Mary Houlihan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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