Sunday, September 30, 2007


This, like CROWN VS. STEVENS, is another TCM premiere of a British Warner Brothers "quota quickie" which has rarely been screened in the States. It's a thriller with a circus setting and, though the pace slackens a bit here and there, it's entertaining. Ben Lyon and his brother David Farrar own a struggling traveling circus, with Lyon running the business end and Farrar performing in the starring acrobat act with Anne Crawford, with whom Farrar is also romantically involved. One night, down-and-out Herbert Lom comes around looking for a job; there are none to be had, but when a lion escapes and threatens the circus folk, Lom is able to calm it down and return it to its cage. It turns out that Lom, a puny, bullied kid in his youth, discovered he had an ability to control animals, and he became a hypnotist. Lyon winds up hiring him to hypnotize Crawford so she can perform a backwards highwire slide without using a balance. The act turns the circus into a big draw, but it also creates tension behind the scenes: 1) Farrar becomes jealous of Lom (who is exerting more and more control over Crawford out of the ring); 2) everyone else gets pissed off when Lyon, in order to keep Lom around, agrees to make him a full-fledged partner in the business; 3) sharpshooter Josephine Wilson in particular distrusts Lom and doesn't hide her feelings. Lom confesses his love to Crawford, but she tells him that she could never forget Farrar. He seems to back off, but instead he hypnotizes Crawford into getting tired during the climax of her trapeze act with Farrar, causing Farrar to take a fall. He is seriously injured, and no one knows the reason for the accident, though Wilson suspects Lom played a part. The circus becomes even more popular until one night when the still crippled Farrar returns to watch a new hypnosis stunt involving Crawford sitting in a chair on the wire over a flame pit. The stunt turns deadly, but not quite in the way we suspect.

Lyon is his usual stuffy self, but despite getting first billing, his role is relatively minor. Farrar (best known for BLACK NARCISSUS) and Crawford are quite good as the central couple, but Lom (later Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies) shines as the mysterious Svengali figure. While not handsome, he is striking here with his short stature, dark looks, black suits, and heavy Austrian accent; he looks at times like a cross between Peter Lorre and Charles Boyer. There is some fun to be had from the comic relief figures of the portly ringmaster (Fredrick Burtwell) and his skinny, shrewish wife (Elsie Wagstaff). The characters are nicely fleshed out for a B-film like this; for example, William Hartnell, who played Dr. Who in the 1960's, plays the circus PR man and though he is not particularly important to the plot, he does come across as a fairly well-rounded character. I have no idea what the title refers to; perhaps the giant lift that Lom and Crawford use to get up to the trapeze in the final scene. The script was based on a play by George S. Kaufmann and Alexander Woollcott, but I can't imagine that much of the original remains. [TCM]

No comments: