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It's Fredric March: Man on a Tightrope (1953)

In the Northern Hemisphere, March is typically thought of as the month when Winter transitions to Spring. We’re movie-obsessed, so March means Fredric March, the actor who transitions from Jekyll to Hyde. This year marks his 125th anniversary, so we’re dedicating March to the versatile leading man.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: The Cernik Circus is under the control of the Czechoslovakian government but in competition with a rival circus as well. After enduring one harassment too much, the former owner (Fredric March) decides enough is enough and plans to escape across the border to the American-occupied side.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: It’s a tense plot, and this is a film that I was intrigued to see, in light of unfortunate current events. Initially, I found myself very impressed with it, but two days after seeing it, I have reanalyzed my position based on the fact that I simply haven’t felt propelled to consider the film in any great way. Ah, well. Such is life.

SG: The film is based on the Brumbach Circus which escaped from East to West Germany in 1950. Kalka (Hansi) and Cernik’s mother (Madame Brumbach) are survivors from that incident. Theirs was less dramatic, however, as the circus gradually sneaked vehicles out of East Germany over a long period of time.

The photography in this film is very stark. You can see the wrinkles on the painted faces, the unkempt hair blowing in the breeze, and the saliva in the actor’s mouths. The circus is an unglamorous place and it is even worse in an oppressive country. This style is very modern and directly contrasts the ultra-glamorous unreality of many movies made by the studio system. It was made in West Germany for additional realism.

RB: Like so many of our readers, I imagine, I can often tell the studio that produced a film without seeing the opening titles, just by noticing an unmistakable shooting style; a sheen, you might say. I’d be hard pressed to identify this as a Fox film, perhaps due to the reasons that you state. The location shooting almost certainly has something to do with it. It’s as realistic looking a film as you can imagine from a major studio in 1953.

SG: It is alternately disturbing and amazing that Adolphe Menjou is listed on the second page of the credits, disturbing because he seems like too big a star to be placed so low in the billing, but amazing because he was a star decades before during the silent era and here he is still going strong. He makes a big impression as the intimidating officer who continually harasses Cernik for failing to comply absolutely to the orders of the state. The state has confiscated Cernik's circus and runs it as they see fit, but still under his name, even though their way is overly sanitized and without joy. Through the officer's story we see that even those who seem to be serving the communist regime are subject to its whims.

RB: Menjou really is good in this film, one of his last for a major studio. While you’re correct that he had been a star for decades (and just the previous year had starred in The Sniper (1952) for Columbia, although to be fair, that wasn’t exactly a big budget film) his film career had largely slowed to a crawl by this point, probably in large part due to his vocal support and cooperation with the HUAC. Just as those who were wrongly accused of engaging in Communist activities were blackballed and prohibited from freely working, Hollywood would often internally punish those who cooperated with the House, though not directly blacklisting them.

SG: It was a tense time for everyone even remotely associated with the communist witch hunt. Director Elia Kazan made this film after he testified for HUAC and named names. His fellow filmmakers did not look well upon his decision, and the studio bosses wanted to show the public that the controversial but talented director was anti-communist, so he was chosen by Daryl Zanuck to direct Man on a Tightrope. Kazan said in his memoir that the crew was threatened by the East German government, and the first director of photography quit because he was afraid the threats would be carried out.

March, another person who cooperated with HUAC, is tremendous in the film and he carries the story completely on his shoulders. He is an imperfect man, a father struggling to maintain control of his teenaged daughter, a businessman whose business is crumbling, a Czech whose country is failing him, and a friend to a man who has betrayed him. His strength through adversity and his willingness to sacrifice for the good of others are admirable qualities.

Terry Moore looks like a young boy just starting puberty. Her face is pretty and extremely youthful but her dark eyebrows give her face a hard edge that works well in this brooding role.

RB: I can’t agree more that this is a wonderful performance by March, maybe better than any that we’ve seen this month (although I contend that Nothing Sacred is a better movie), and Terry Moore really exhibits a lot of depth in her role as his sensitive, naïve daughter. Richard Boone is really good too as Krofta, Cernik’s friend who eventually threatens to turn him over to the government. It’s fun to note too that (former Disney animator) John Dehner has a bit part in this film, bringing together both men who played Paladin of Have Gun Will Travel fame. Boone played the role on TV, while Dehner capably handled it on radio.

And then, there’s Gloria Grahame. Look, I get it. What I’m about to say is sacrilege to legions of male classic film fans, but I don’t understand. She’s certainly a fine actress, her role here is shortly after she won an Academy Award for her role in The Bad and the Beautiful, and smack in between two genuinely great noir films, The Glass Wall and The Big Heat. But in this film, her role seems extremely shallow. Why is she with Cernik in the first place if she despises him so? Is he simply her ticket out of Czechoslovakia? Maybe? Not sure. And why do film fans lust after her so? Again, I don’t get it. She looks like a praying mantis to me. I guess I’ll just have to keep a stiff upper lip and soldier on, knowing that when I see her credited, I’ll at least see a capable actress, and left wondering why she is still considered such a sex symbol today.

SG: I can't say I've ever sought out her films. She's fine but not my favorite. In the scene where March hits Grahame, the camera shakes because the wagon they’re in is shaking from the blow. I find their relationship in the film to be troublesome and it could have been excised completely.

RB: That was wildly off-putting and jarred me as much as the camera was jarred. It was inappropriate, out of character and I wish it wasn’t included in the final film.

SG: Film Bulletin called the film, “A tense thriller that builds to nail-biting dimensions, Man on a Tightrope has a bizarre story and foreign film atmosphere that may not sit too well with the general run of patronage. On the other hand, for the discriminating and for art house customers, here is a topflight study of suspense and conflict and myriad personalities that go to make up a circus.”

The movie drags a bit in the beginning, but the climax is intensely exciting, benefitting from the slow build-up of tension prior. It took a while for the movie to capture my attention, but it features excellent performances and an exciting climax. Three stars.

RB: It’s definitely a slow builder, but one that managed to keep my attention all the way though until the final third when all hell brakes loose. Sometimes you go into a movie with a certain set of expectations, and I certainly did knowing I was going to see a Kazan directed drama with this cast. Ultimately, I may have been left a little underwhelmed, but that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it or find it worthwhile. A solid three star middling effort.

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