Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Trouble under the big top... Circus of Fear (1966)

Suzy Kendall
This film opens with an audacious six-minute sequence showing an armed robbery on a van trying to ferry money across Tower Bridge in the early hours. It’s fast-moving, almost completely dialogue free and gives some great views of the working docksides on both sides of the Thames in the sixties… twenty years later they’d all be either turned into flats or knocked down but here, between the City and Bermondsey the capital was still taking a lot of sea-bound freight.

Director John Llewellyn Moxey clearly had a plan for this dynamic opening and in this new Blu-ray edition Ernest Steward’s cinematography is crystal clear and the background depth of field is almost more interesting than the action in focus. The robbery itself involves a group of well-drilled mobsters who close off the Bridge early in the morning as one of their number, Manfred (Klaus Kinski  - always out of place in these British B movies), takes out the controller so that he can raise the bridge preventing escape for a van taking money across the river.

Dirty old town...
The gang force the security officers to open the van and, as they steal the contents one of the drivers makes a break for it only to be gunned down by his co-driver Mason (Victor Maddern – who, as usual, has cracked under pressure). The men look grim knowing that this increases the severity of their crime and, as they make their escape via rope down to a waiting boat, things look very short-term for Mason…

There are recriminations back at the gang’s lair but the mysterious mastermind seems to offer Mason a second chance as he asks him to bring his share of the money to a remote village… well, what do you thinks going to happen? Just as he waits to meet the mastermind, Mason gets a knife in the back… no ordinary weapon but a circus knife thrower’s blade

Victor Maddern cracking under pressure
Cue a shift of scene to a big top… Pursuing his original criminals, Chief Inspector Elliott of Scotland Yard (Leo Genn) goes looking for the kind of place you’d find such a knife and arrives at Barberini’s Circus (they used Billy Smart's Circus). Here the film changes pace completely and a whodunnit evolves among a cast of intriguing if a tad cliched characters. Let’s see, we have Mr Barberini (Anthony Newlands) who, despite his opulent cigars, is struggling to make the business work. Then there’s a barely married couple, hot-blooded *knife*-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) and his curvaceous wife Gina (Margaret Lee, who is the epitome of mid-sixties Brit-bombshell), who row continually over her fidelity… what can she have expected marrying an Italian who throws sharp objects for a living?!

No suspicious characters here, oh my, no.
There’s a dwarf called Mr. Big (Skip Martin) who seems to know everyone’s business and is ever open to being paid to keep their secrets and ring master, Carl (Heinz Drache) who watches all very intently. As for the lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee), he keeps a mask on to supposedly hide scarring from a lion too far, surely, he’s got much to hide and the nervousness of his daughter Natasha (sixties icon Suzy Kendall) confirms as much.

As the characters snipe at each other Gina is almost killed after being trapped amongst the lions, Gregor comes to her rescue but is that only for appearances? It’s only a temporary reprieve though as Gina is despatched by the same kind of knife as Mason, a sad departure from a film she does much to enliven! It’s got to be her jealous husband but not, it’s far too early for that resolution surely?

Besides, what about Gregor and his mask? What is Carl really there for and surely it can’t be Mr Big given the angle of the knives in peoples’ backs?

Daggers drawn: Maurice Kaufmann and Margaret Lee
Dusty Verdict: The story is based on an Edgar Wallace detective novel and it shows, not in a bad way but it’s a classic police procedural that is full of detailed red herrings and actually quite light on action. There’s also little in the way of “fear” and so this is not the Christopher Lee horror circus you may have been looking for. The Anglo-German cast do well though and it is an enjoyable if not especially gripping, tale even though it fails to follow up on the excellent opening action sequence.

The performers try their best and Skip Martin is excellent, Klaus Kinski is magnetic, as is Margaret Lee who gives it her all as the blonde bombshell trapped at the sharp end of her knife thrower’s jealousy. It’s always a pleasure to watch Suzy Kendall and Christopher Lee even if the latter does much of his work underneath a cloth mask…

But London, the dirty old port, is the star of those opening moments.

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