The circus of life, where death continually hovers—a rootless or uprooted existence reflecting realities ranging from the status of refugees who were generated by war’s dislocations, to political upheaval and uncertainties, such as behind the Iron Curtain: these and related themes partially account for the plethora of films set around a circus, or employing the circus as metaphor, in the 1950s: among them, The Greatest Show on Earth (Cecil B. DeMille, 1952), Twilight of a Clown (Ingmar Bergman, 1953), La strada (Federico Fellini, 1954), Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955), Trapeze (Carol Reed, 1956). His gripping Man on a Tightrope, one of Elia Kazan’s best films, is another of these notable works.
Written by Robert E. Sherwood from the novel by Neil Paterson, for which Paterson’s story “International Incident” served as a blueprint, the plot revolves around Cirkus Cernik, a small Czech circus that aims to cross the border to escape into non-Communist Germany in 1952. This fictional group is based on the actual Circus Brumbach, which succeeded in sneaking out of Communist East Germany, animals and all, in 1950 and whose members have been interwoven with the film’s cast of Hollywood actors.
Chief among these is Fredric March, who plays brilliantly Karel Cernik, the one-time owner of the circus, the property of his family for generations, who as a result of the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia has been reduced to managing the circus for the state. No longer is Cernik, a circus clown, supposed to be funny; instead, his performances must embody the Communist Party-line. He is thus driven to engineer the circus’s flight to freedom.
Cernik must also contend with an unfaithful younger wife and a daughter who is romantically involved with someone of whom he disapproves. This Arthur Millerish melodrama somewhat damages the film, reaching its most embarrassing moment when Cernik slaps wife Zama, who responds that he should have done this much sooner. Oy!. Another problem is that the lyrically explosive Kazan has little talent for the kind of sustained suspenseful adventure that the film requires. Fortunately, his superb black-and-white cinematographer, George Krause, collaborates on images of intense realism bordering on Surrealism, with startling camera angles that analyze relationships within the circus and between the circus and the Communist officials breathing down its neck. Kazan, here, is at the top of his form. He also draws from Richard Boone a splendid portrayal of Krofta, the Communist member of the circus who imperils its escape. One wonders at the extent to which the Cernik-Krofta conflict resonates with Kazan’s own competing loyalties and split political autobiography.
It had been a year since Kazan’s infamous testimony before the House Un-Anerican Activities Committee, and he is determined to show how evil Soviet-style Communism is in order to justify that testimony. Political evil, alas, has more guises than Kazan was willing to admit to. Regardless, here he made one helluva good film.
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