Circus Melodrama With High-Flying Love Triangle



Starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and Gina Lollobrigida (the Italian star making her first Hollywood-produced film), British director Carol Reed (Odd Man Out [1947], The Third Man [1949]) takes to the dizzying heights above the center ring – both with and without a net – in this circus-ascendant 1956 melodrama. Shot in CinemaScope and DeLuxe color by Robert Krasker (who had previously shot both Odd Man Out and The Third Man for director Reed), the breathtaking vertical and horizontal vistas of performance spaces 90 feet in the air receive possibly their most vivid visualizing to that point in the sound-film era. With its trio of high-flying stars essaying equally high-pitched performances, the high-stakes drama and equally high-intensity tone all combine to create a story and manner of telling worthy of the bold-, block-lettered word CIRCUS. Movies rarely rise to the vertiginous levels of danger and romance required of the subject, but Trapeze rates among the spectacular few to pull off a triple in terms of its triangular love story under the big top.

Trapeze flier Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) cold opens pre-credits on his fleetingly successful performance attempt at the triple, mid-air somersault, only to narrowly miss his catcher’s grasp, painfully bounce-landing on the net’s metal bar and breaking his back. Several years later, Ribble is working as a laborer for Paris’s famed Cirque D’Hiver (“winter circus”), now an embittered alcoholic and cane-wielding spot-rigger. There, Ribble is approached by the energetic and youthful Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis), a fellow New Yorker who has sought out the former master aerialist in Europe. After much coaxing, including a delightful hand-balancing stroll down a dawn-breaking boulevard, Ribble, spotting the young flier’s ascending potential beneath his brash exterior, agrees to coach young Orsini towards the elusive triple, and the double-act of Ribble & Orsini is born, with Ribble acting as the high-flying Orsini’s catcher.

Just before their act reaches its third-flipping objective, however, the tempestuous form of the ambitious Lola (Gina Lollobrigida) intrudes, whom the unscrupulous manager of the Cirque D’Hiver, Bouglione (Thomas Gomez), is using as leverage against the act signing with circus impresario John Ringling North (Minor Watson). The two-act now an uneasy three, passions and jealousies ascend from ground-level tensions to high-altitude drama as the triangular romantic configuration proves the main swinging obstacle to that triple-sault expression of “real circus”.

Based on a 1950 paperback by British pulp novelist Max Catto, originally titled The Killing Frost, the screenplay by Liam O’Brien and James R. Webb (with uncredited contributions from Wolf Mankowitz and Ben Hecht) downplays the apparently seamier and more transgressive sexual and, indeed, homicidal narrative and thematic elements its adaptation can only hint at. “Circus noir” may be rather overstating the (again) high-level of intensity Lancaster, Curtis, and Lollobrigida individually bring to their taut-wire performances, but the unconscious unease that thematically and stylistically “stretched” every Hollywood genre during that anxious decade — from the ‘woman’s picture’ (ex. Written on the Wind [1956) and the domestic drama (ex. Bigger Than Life [1956]) to the historical epic (ex. The Searchers [1956]) and small-town ‘Americana’ (ex. Peyton Place [1957]) — undeniably finds its forceful and (again) high-stakes expression in Trapeze.

With its searing, bold-as-literal-brass musical passages by Malcolm Arnold (who would win an Oscar the following year for his suitably epic-scale accompaniment to David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]), Bert Bates’ rhythmic editing of Krasker’s full widescreen and color palette-utilizing images – in all, a circus symphony of sight, sound, and score – similarly “stretches” the narrative and thematic expression of the trio’s inner-conflicted and outer-obsessive swing-leaps towards Big Top glory. As co-producer, Lancaster’s real-life circus background certainly imbues the proceedings with a hard-won authenticity crucially lacking in other performance-based films, and director Reed’s flamboyant stylistics add to and enhance the already atmospheric subject matter. The inevitable “flying without a net” moment the circus movie builds to here gains disturbing and bracing dimensions that Lancaster’s passionate, Curtis’s fear-focused, and Lollobrigida’s self-driven expressions individually register; a screen-dynamic of character, story, and style that is expressive as it is dramatic. In all, the closest a purely performance-driven movie has yet come to expressing the multi-layered, -leveled, and -liaison spectacle called CIRCUS.

Regarding the last, curious viewers are strongly referred to writer-editor, film historian, and podcast host-extraordinaire Kat Ellinger and her feature-length commentary included on Kino Lorber’s visually-strong Blu-ray release. From German silent movie star Emil Jannings’ high-style humiliations in E. A. Dupont’s 1925 Weimar Expressionist circus tragedy Variety (1925), subsequent Big Top dramas through Tod Browning’s Freaks (1931) and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1950) have seen several dark triangular romances grace the rarefied atmosphere far above the gawking rubberneckers below. Like the passion play of the gods on Mt. Olympus, there is no easy resolution to the upper-air emotional conflicts of outsize performers, but fortunately Trapeze is among the happy few to swing the most from its (once again) high-flying drama.

The images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver and are taken directly from Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release.