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This little movie is an exciting sleeper. It is a fictional story of a
incident about a small circus in an Eastern Bloc country that planned to
escape to the West during the cold war. With uniformly excellent
performances by all one of its unique accomplishments is the creation of a
real sense of place. Although most of the cast is North American and speak
in English, through the use of carefully written dialog, well thought out
characterizations and wordrobe you have no doubt that you are in a foreign
country listening to people speaking in their own language.
A real candidate for resurrection and re-isse.
Sleeper classics are rare. Esthetics do not change, but politics do.
This movie has a political message -- that communism is horrible, and
that life under communism is bare existence. That was not enough for
the McCarthy Era, and this movie falls short of the standard
anti-communist diatribe of its kind. The view of someone like Vaclav
Havel that communism was mere degradation of people and the imposition
of an absurd order was not "hard-line" enough for the McCarthy Era.
This movie shows a more subtle critique of communism than the usual apocalyptic view of saber-rattling generals and madman tyrants. Czechoslovakia could have been the shopfront for communism because it wasn't as ravaged by World War II as were some other countries, and the Soviets didn't treat it as a conquered province grafted onto its empire. The country was prosperous before World War II and had a democratic government for twenty years after World War I. Even in Czechoslovakia, the communists imposed one degradation after another upon the people while promoting itself with demagogic rhetoric that communism was the desire of the working man -- except that nobody had the right to say "no" anymore. The communists nationalized Cernik's circus, only to pay him a very generous salary as compensation as a manager of a state enterprise; then they made the money worthless through currency "reforms" that pauperized all but the communists and enriched the communists. Sudden horror and slow degradation lead to the same misery, only at different rates.
Politics aside, this is a good adventure film with some comic elements as the circus crew fights among itself to seek escape from the madhouse (note that Milos Forman said that his image of an asylum for the insane was much like his native Czechoslovakia in comments on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
Too subtle for the 1950's, it got lost. In the cable-TV era "movie archive" channels try out some lost movies and occasionally find a gem. This one is a gem.
Fredric March is a "Man on a Tightrope" in this 1953 film also starring
Terry Moore, Gloria Grahame, Adolphe Menjou, Richard Boone and Cameron
Mitchell, Directed by Elia Kazan, this black and white film is about
circus performers who and a daring plan to escape to Germany from
Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia. The manager of the circus, Karel
Czernik (Fredric March) is a seemingly weak man - in fact, his second
wife (Grahame) detests him for it. When he's called before Communist
authorities for one or another infraction committed by the circus, he's
deferential and nervous. Behind all this, he has been planning the
escape of the entire circus from Czechoslovakia for three years. Only a
few people know - but when the Commmunists ask about a radio owned by
Czernik, he realizes one of his friends is probably a traitor, though
he can't accept it. He also has trouble accepting his daughter's (Terry
Moore) taste in men (Cameron Mitchell).
I visited Czechoslovakia eight years ago. The thought of that beautiful country and those charming, stunning people having to live for so long under Communist rule is a heartbreaking thought. This film really brought it home.
One thing immediately noticeable about "Man on a Tightrope" is the circus and the depressing Eastern Europe atmosphere, heightened by the black and white photography and the broken-down circus. Then there is the look of the people in the circus - these aren't actor's faces, these are the faces of real people. Kazan used a real-life circus, the Brumbach Circus, for background and performances. You can almost feel the dust and the oppression of working under Communist rule.
Fredric March gives a wonderful performance as Karel, a true actor who appears to bow to the Communists and yet is no weakling. His love for both his wife and daughter is apparent, as is his determination to get out of the country and concern for the performers. Gloria Grahame is sexy and flirty as his wife, who has her eye on the lion tamer, until she realizes the stuff her husband is made of. Moore and Mitchell are convincing lovers. Adolphe Menjou, as a Communist official, is very good as the only one who pierces the act that March is putting on. Smart men bear watching, and so do nice men. Cernik is both.
Apparently due to the political climate at the time, this film wasn't widely shown or publicized. I caught it on Fox Movie Channel - hopefully FMC will be on more basic cable in the country, and also hopefully Fox will bring this film out on DVD. It deserves to be seen.
This is an interesting movie about the members of a circus troupe trying to flee Communist domination while battling amongst themselves. Adolphe Menjou is spectacular as a down-on-his-luck government functionary. Gloria Grahame is chilling in her scenes. Richard Boone and Cameron Mitchell lend professional support.
Kazan, in his "A Life", describes this movie mostly in terms of early-morning bonding with his crew, but while it contains far fewer emotional lightning-bolts than most Kazan films, it also contains some incredibly poetic violence. Even though it's hard to tell if it's just hastily staged or artistically muted, one shot of a sentry being killed just below the screen is both intimate and shielding. The battle scenes are exciting, short, and brilliant. Kazan takes no credit at all, saying that much of the film was devised by producer Gerd Oswald and cinematographer Georg Kraus. Strange and sparse, this is a very interesting film.
I've seen this movie several times over the years, usually on American Movie Classics or as a commercialized network movie. To me, the movie is a real classic, with wonderful acting and a most interesting plot and story. It would be very easy to imagine such an event taking place under those less than ideal times in the Eastern Bloc. I am surprised, and disappointed, that this movie classic is not out on video. If it should ever be released to video, I would prefer that it be issued on DVD (hint,hint in case a studio should look in).
A film about escape from the Stalinist tyranny of the East Bloc? In the
1950s? By the Director who brought you Splendor in the Grass, East of
Eden, and On The Waterfront? Never heard of it, huh? Perhaps it is time
to look a little more closely at Hollywood's Celluloid Curtain and see
if indeed our entertainment industry thinks that exposing
totalitarianism is somehow not "politically correct." One seriously has
to wonder why this star-studded, exciting, and uplifting film has
received so little airtime over the years.
Frederic March, Gloria Grahame, Adolphe Menjou, Richard Boone, screenplay by Robert Sherwood, of Lincoln in Illinois and The Best Years of Our Lives fame...
SEE THIS FILM!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In 1952,Elia Kazan agreed to cooperate with the House AntiAmerican
Activities Committee.That would ruin some of his colleagues'
(directors,actors,writers) career ;he was not the only one:Edward
Dmytryk followed his steps .Both felt remorse and both could never
completely get over it:Dmytryk's "the juggler" "the sniper" and even
"the Caine mutiny" are full of hidden messages (check those titles).
"Man on a tight rope" was a movie that made sense.One of the most Anti-Communist movie of that era,of course a propaganda movie,it was never released ,for instance,in France ,because there were commies in the government.It was recently given a ridiculous French title ("Le cirque en révolte" =rebellious circus)for its first screening on TV.
Time has passed.Now who can still ignore what was happening behind the Iron Curtain?Today's generations can no longer be shocked when you see how low Communist parties have sunk in Europa (if the French Communist candidate ,Marie-George Buffet reaches 3% the votes in the FRench election next week,that will be quite a feat!) Given it is a propaganda movie,and considering Kazan's less-than-comfortable situation,"man on a tight rope" is a remarkable work,for,although Kazan was burning with a desire to get his messages across,his art survived the heavy intentions.Lyricism -which would come to the fore in "East of Eden" or "Splendor in the grass" - is already present in the luminous scene of the lovers' swimming.One should note that this scene is followed by Cernik's first questioning in a dark office .
The circus ,what a transparent metaphor !That the Czekolovakian authorities should be infuriated by a simple clowns number speaks volumes,more than one hour of rhetoric.Inside the circus,there 's nothing but suspicious minds.Everyone suspects everyone,from a dwarf to an ex-deserter to a lion-tamer to the manager's(no longer owner:the circus belongs to the people now) daughter.
The final,which involves the whole circus trying to get to the Bavarian border,is masterfully directed ,with an unusually inventive of faces in close shots.I've always thought that Eisenstein was one of Kazan's biggest influence.Kazan uses the circus people in a stunning way.
Cernik is a modern Mosis ,when they arrive in the promised land....
Completely overshadowed by its excellent follow-up "on the waterfront"-which is also a try to justify informing","Man on a tight rope" must be brought of oblivion.
This is a particularly fine film, but the other users missed an item that
would like to mention.
Namely, communism or, rather, the specific type of communism which was practiced within the old Soviet Empire, was a subtle poison to the human spirit.
In a critical scene, just before the fatal run across the border, the Circus manager questions a roustabout about his betrayal of his community(the Circus) and everyone whom he ever knew there. This man, with a straight face, announces that he and the other manual laborers are the heart and essence of the circus. Along with the movie audience, the manager(played by veteran actor Frederick March) is shocked that anyone could convince himself that people come to see him and his fellows, not the aerialists, not the lion tamer nor even the clowns.
There are no paranoid political rants here, but that form of communism is "busted" for its "divide and conquer" tactics. People took appalling risks to flee communism and this film gives the viewer part of why they were willing to take them. I couldn't imagine then and I can't imagine now that "a higher standard of living" was the reason for this.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Man on a Tightrope", the 1953 film directed by Elia Kazan surprises
for the way the director working overseas, mainly in Austria and
Germany, was able to capture the atmosphere of the Cold War during the
years after WWII. Based on a Neil Paterson story, "International
Incident", it was adapted for the screen by Robert Sherwood.
Unfortunately, this picture is not seen often enough these days, but it
is worth a view by fans of Elia Kazan because it shows him at the top
of his form.
We are taken to the Cernik Circus, a third rate enterprise, whose owner, Karel Cernik is planning an escape to the West from a an Iron Curtain country, in this case, Czechoslovakia. It was no easy task to try to flee any of those countries during that time. With great resolution Karel plans the way to do it, not without a lot of things that get in the way of the escape.
Frederick March, one of the best actors of that period, plays the older Cernik with great conviction. Gloria Grahame is his flighty wife, who at the end recognizes the courage of a husband she didn't seem to care for. A young Terry Moore is Tereza in love with Joe Vosdek, played by Cameron Mitchell. Richard Boone has an excellent opportunity in which to shine.
"Man on a Tightrope" should be seen by serious fans of the great director Elia Kazan, as it will reward the viewer.
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