Here's something you don't see every day: Edward Norton in period garb, with the trace of a middle-European accent, no less.

But in The Illusionist , the actor known for his fierce turns in such of-the-moment pics as Fight Club , American History X and 25th Hour sports a cape, rides a horse and dazzles the citizens of 19th-century Vienna with daunting sleight-of-hand.

“There is something mysterious about Edward, in all his roles,” says Neil Burger, who cast Norton as an enigmatic conjurer in The Illusionist . “You feel like he has some sort of secret, that he's not letting you know everything. And he's also a very intense guy, kind of intimidating. That's all Eisenheim – this dark, mysterious, charismatic character.”

Burger adapted The Illusionist from a short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Steven Millhauser. The film was shot last year in Prague, subbing beautifully for Vienna.

In fact, The Illusionist is full of jobs that defy expectation: Burger's 2002 directorial debut, Interview With the Assassin , was a low-budget, shot-on-digital, reality TV-like drama about a self-confessed second gunman on the day of the President John F. Kennedy's assassination. In style and subject matter, The Illusionist , with its deliberately retro Hollywood strokes, couldn't be more different.

And then Burger goes and gets Paul Giamatti, known mostly for sad-sack loser dudes ( American Splendor , Sideways , Lady in the Water ), as a Viennese police inspector. And Jessica Biel, the all-American babe of TV's “7th Heaven” and the superhero actioner Blade: Trinity , as a refined Austrian royal. And it works.

“Paul has been playing these neurotic, eccentric characters, and you wouldn't think about him on first blush,” says Burger. “But I wanted to have a fresh take on the investigating inspector or policeman – which is such a conventional film role. So I was thinking of different people, different ways to do it, and Paul got a hold of the script on his own.”

“He has this twinkle in his eye and this real love of the absurdity of life,” continues Burger. “And the character, Inspector Uhl, is that way. He is very canny, and observant. I also recognized with Paul this quiet power ... You get so much heart from him.”

In the film, Norton's Eisenheim and Giamatti's Uhl are at odds, as the magician's act appears to transcend mere trickery, and audiences grow unruly, believing that he is actually summoning the dead. Uhl, an ambitious and pragmatic man, is at the beck and call of the Crown Prince – played with an evil glare by Rufus Sewell. Biel's Princess Sophie is Eisenheim's childhood sweetheart, now engaged to be married to the Prince.

Biel, says Burger, was nowhere on his wish list of actresses for the role. “There was no reason for us to see Jessica. But her agent lobbied and lobbied, and finally we went, ‘OK, fine, we'll see her.' And she came in and she did a reading in period costume. Very elegant, a simple dress but something that was clearly from another time. Her hair was pulled back, and she read with a slight accent, and it was a very refined, restrained performance ...

“She fit the bill. She's incredibly lovely, a really hard worker, and was doing the things that we wanted her to do, and knocking us out. She's kind of a little movie star herself and we thought we couldn't say no anymore.”

Burger cites Mike Leigh, the English kitchen-sink realist, and Federico Fellini, the groundbreaking Italian fantasist, as two of his favorite filmmakers – another real contrast in style and approach.

“Mike Leigh is incredibly cinematic,” says Burger. “He's not thought of that way, because it's not Lawrence of Arabia cinematic. But what Leigh shoots is so keenly observed that it becomes as cinematic as any grand desert landscape.

“And Fellini is so visual, but again in a way that brings out the human condition. I once read where he said that he wanted to bring the supernatural into the light of day ... And in all of his movies, there is always that moment where you encounter the uncanny, something strange or something surreal. A breathtakingly strange moment, and I love that.”

© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

The Illusionist is currently in theaters.