Circus of Fear (1966)

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Aka Psycho-CircusCircus of Terror/ Das Rätsel des silbernen Dreieck / Mystery of the Silver Triangle/ Scotland Yard auf heißer Spur. I wonder if we have something in common with the murderer.  We’re both looking for the same thing. In the aftermath of a daring armoured car heist on London’s Tower Bridge that ends with the murder of a security guard, police detective Jim Elliott (Leo Genn) follows a trail of clues to the travelling Barberini Circus, which has just passed through the city. Though he suspects a conspiracy under the big top, he discovers strained relations between the disfigured lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) and his associates and colleagues who include owner Barberini (Anthony Newlands), ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache), bookkeeper and wannabe clown Eddie (Eddi Arent), knife-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) and a dwarf called Mr Big (Skip Martin). Elliot struggles to find his man – and recover the stolen cash – in a maze of blackmail and deceit that concludes in a sharp-edged dénouement courtesy of Mario …  Why must these things always happen at the weekend? Written by producer Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) and based on Again The Three Just Men by Edgar Wallace, whose prolific work had just spawned another series of adaptations at Merton Park Studios, this is a British take on the German krimi genre and happily has Klaus Kinski as the mysterious Manfred among a terrific cast numbering Suzy Kendall as Gregor’s niece Natasha, Cecil Parker as Sir John of the Yard, and Victor Maddern as Mason the unfortunate who uses a gun, with Lee in a mask rather defeating his key role but leading to a key unveiling in the third act. Genn is a bit of a PC Plod rather than an intuitive ‘tec but his role winds up anchoring the narrative and he’s nicely sardonic if secondary to the overly complex and twisty plot of the circus crowd’s behind the scenes antics with red herrings and dead ends dangling everywhere. Mostly nicely handled by cinematographer Ernest Steward with some interesting shot setups and well paced by director John [Llewellyn] Moxey. The opening scene is smartly achieved without dialogue and the final summing up scene is a high wire act quite different from what you’d see in Agatha Christie. Werner Jacobs directed the German version which has an alternative ending and was released in black and white. I do like to respect a man’s privacy but in a criminal case there’s really no such thing

Dumbo (2019)

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You should listen to your kids more. Struggling travelling circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) enlists a former equestrian star, WW1 amputee Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) and his two children Milly (Nico Parker) and son Joe (Finley Hobbins) to care for Dumbo, a baby elephant born with oversized ears to Mrs Jumbo. When the family discovers that the animal can fly, it soon becomes the main attraction — bringing in huge audiences and revitalizing the run-down circus. His mother is separated from him leaving him distraught then his magical ability draws the attention of V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) an entrepreneur who wants to showcase Dumbo in his latest, larger-than-life entertainment venture Dreamland where he intends his spirited  Parisian trapeze artiste Colette Marchant (Eva Green) will use the little fellow in her act…  You have something very rare. You have wonder. You have mystique. You have magic. In this latest pointless live-action remake of Disney’s brilliant animated features, Ehren Kruger’s screenplay (welcome back to the big leagues) has to tread a fine line between the exigencies of the House of Mouse with its unadulterated classic sentiment and the Gothic flourishes and flawed excesses of director Tim Burton who reassembles some of his usual actors (DeVito, Green, Keaton) alongside Disney’s latest humanoid fave, Farrell. Dumbo is the greatest animation ever made and a personal favourite, an utterly beguiling story of grave majesty and emotionality. This is never going to reach those heights no matter how many high wire acts, freakshows and armless motherless humans are dramatised as reactive tropes, how many of the circus’ darkest inclinations are exhibited, how many cartoon baddies (with Afrikaaner accents) are on standby, how good Keaton (as the anti-Walt Disney!) and DeVito are, how sweet the family message. The Art Deco interiors and production design are splendid, there is real jeopardy and the CGI elephants are beautiful, but you don’t need elephants to save your blank-eyed expressionless soul (Parker has no acting ability whatsoever) which is this film’s message. It expands on the original adaptation of Helen Alberson’s book and it’s not the anticipated travesty that  the horrific Alice in Wonderland was for the same auteur pairing but that’s not saying much.  If you really want to do something for the plight of their species stop all those vile African natives and American trophy hunters from brutally killing them and ensuring their imminent extinction. Back to the drawing board. Fly, Dumbo … fly

 

Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

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The more you drink, the better I sound. Gigolo cousins Christopher Tracy (Prince) and  Tricky (Jerome Benton) swindle wealthy French women as they pursue musical careers on the Riviera. The situation gets complicated when Christopher falls in love with heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas) after planning to swindle her when he finds out that she inherits a $50 million trust fund on her 21st birthday. Mary’s shipping magnate father Isaac (Steven Berkoff) disapproves of the romance and proves a difficult adversary. Meanwhile, Christopher rivals Tricky for Mary’s affections…  I want a girl who’s smart, a girl who can teach me things. I hate stupid women. You know why? You marry a stupid girl, you have stupid kids. You don’t believe me? Follow a stupid kid home and see if somebody stupid don’t answer the door. Nutty, silly, completely nonsensical and entertaining in ways that somehow seem very Eighties – it could only be the work of that great musical genius, Prince. With highly demonstrative acting that is straight out of the silent era, a debut by Scott Thomas, a nod to the Beatles’ movies in the casting of Victor Spinetti, and a raft of extraordinary music, this notoriously earned a hoard of Golden Raspberries while being labelled a Vanity Project but is all about romance and the kind of class zaniness directly attributable to Thirties screwball. Analysing performance in such a deliberately OTT eye-rolling production is beside the point. It’s all about pastiche and homage and is as fluffy and adorable as a kitten with daft dialogue and a game cast whose collective tongue is firmly in cheek. Originally Mary Lambert was set to direct but Prince took over those duties, crediting her as creative consultant.  Written by Becky Johnston; with classic songs by Prince and the Revolution and orchestration by Clare Fischer. Total fun.  I do nothing professionally, I do everything for fun

La Strada (1954)

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What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke? Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a simple-minded young woman whose mother accepts 10,000 lire from brutish itinerant strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) to take her on the road after her older sister Rosa has died doing the same job. He bullies her and she takes up with high-wire performer Il Matto/Fool (Richard Basehart) who is with a travelling circus which she then joins with Zampanò when he finds her. The men’s rivalry culminates in a death … Here we have a piece of chain that is a quarter of an inch thick. It is made of crude iron, stronger than steel. With the simple expansion of my pectoral muscles, or chest, that is, I’ll break the hook.Written by Fellini and Tulio Pinelli with Ennio Flaiano, this is the first of the maestro’s world hits and one of the classics of cinema. It is a tragedy told with immense humanity and vivid melancholy and is a tribute to the performing brilliance of Masina, Fellini’s wife and the inspiration for the central character, a waif of Chaplinesque attractiveness. Much of the film was shot around dawn, imbuing this picaresque of poverty with its unique tone of fatality. This marks a break with the director’s neorealist cinematic roots,  yet it is an unvarnished picture of post-war Italy, a stark contrast with the American Technicolor tourist romcoms being produced on location. However it embraces the vitality and symbolism of the circus and brings a distinctive worldview to global attention. Quinn seems unbearably tough while Basehart does well as a kind of trickster in this allegorical play on the fairytale.  Nino Rota provides the evocative score and the song which is repeated to such urgent effect. A devastating portrait of the destruction of innocence with the overwhelming power of melodrama. Once you lose your eyes, you are finished. If there’s any delicate person in the audience, I would advise him to look away ’cause there could be blood

Doctor Dolittle (1967)

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There’s no doubt about it – animals are far more interesting than people.  In early Victorian England, Dr. John Dolittle (Rex Harrison) lives in a small village where he much prefers the company of animals to humans.  He trains as a veterinarian and specialises in caring for and verbally communicating with animals. When Dr. Dolittle is unjustly sent to an insane asylum for freeing lovesick circus seal Sophie from captivity so she can return to her husband at the North Pole, his animals and two closest human friends, Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley) and Tommy Stubbins (William Dix), liberate him. Afterwards they join Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar) and set out by boat to find a famed and elusive creature: the Great Pink Sea Snail, fetching up on an island where the natives prove a challenge…  How do you make money with a Pushmi-Pullyu? Songwriter Leslie Bricusse adapted Hugh Lofting’s classic children’s books and Harrison and Newley take their theatrical shtick to the screen with zest. A witty, whimsical delight, this was a controversial flop following some disastrous choices of location shooting which led to huge production overruns and Harrison’s loathsome behaviour made filming a chore for the human cast.  The songs are fun, the action marvellous (Harrison’s love scene with Sophie the Seal has to be seen to be appreciated) and it’s a wonderfully colourful musical directed with some flair by Richard Fleischer.  I have nothing in common with the human race

The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.

The Greatest Showman (2017)

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Any other critic might call it a celebration of humanity. A young Phineas Barnum and his tailor father Philo are mocked at the home of the wealthy Hallett family but he falls in love with their lovely daughter Charity and they keep in touch by letter when she is sent to school. When he grows up the adult Phineas (Hugh Jackman) marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and moves from job to job while rearing two little girls in poverty until he hits on the idea of a show with nature’s oddities, creating a community of people who are shunned – Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Irish Giant, et al. He persuades high society playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to join forces to give him respectability and their success brings them fame – even Queen Victoria wants an audience with them. Phineas meets Swedish songbird Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and mortgages everything to bring her all over the USA but she wants him as well – and betrays him, lying to the press, prompting Charity to leave him. When he returns to NYC protesters burn down the circus and Philip runs into the burning building to try to rescue his beloved Anne (Zendaya) an acrobat of colour whom he must battle society to spend his life with …  This moves quickly and expeditiously, daring you to see the cracks – in fact it’s really a stage musical with few concessions to anything you don’t know outside the business of show. It’s got a very inclusive message which is right-on for the current climate. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and directed by first-timer Michael Gracey, there were reshoots apparently supervised by James Mangold who receives an executive producer credit – he had worked closely with Jackman on Logan.  It all adds up to a very nice night out at the musical theatre – even if it bears little relationship to the reality behind the real-life subject or even the musical Barnum by Cy Coleman, Paul Stewart and Mark Bramble. The songs are by Benj Pasek and Michael Paul and bear no relationship with any music produced in the nineteenth century:  to call the music ersatz would be misleading, it’s very contemporary and could come from any new musical you’ve seen or heard lately. However it’s a great showcase for some heartfelt, showstopping numbers  – particularly Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) leading on This Is Me and Efron and Zendaya’s Rewrite the Stars. There are few dramatic segues so this won’t trouble your brain overly much:  it’s a swaggering, confident piece of work which has little faith in the audience – a criticism constantly made of Barnum himself by the resident journo critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) who chronicles his highs and his lows but eventually comes round.  He says it there, it comes out here. Praise is due cinematographer Seamus McGarvey for keeping everything looking absolutely splendid.

Trapeze (1956)

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Burt Lancaster is Mike Ribble, a disabled acrobat who walks with a limp because of a triple somersault that went drastically wrong years ago. Now he’s working as a rigger. Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) wants to learn the triple and Ribble’s the only guy who can teach him. He doesn’t want to but his ex Rosa (Katy Jurado) persuades him to do it. The men form an act and try to crack the big time but when Italian trampolinist Lola (Gina Lollabrigida) gets between them their plans start to come apart at the seams … Vivid, colourful and atmospheric circus film directed by Carol Reed from a script by Liam O’Brien, adapting a novel called The Killing Frost by Max Catto. The screenplay was credited to James R. Webb but there were uncredited additions by Ben Hecht and Wolf Mankowitz. La Lollo makes her American debut in a starry, well-performed production that shows off Lancaster’s acrobatic skills, well documented by Robert Krasker’s photography (he was responsible for all those tilted angles for Reed in The Third Man.) Curtis is an excellent leading man, full of beauty, brio and bravery. Malcolm Arnold’s score captures the jauntiness and terror of the circus with its captivating sense of danger and daring. The bromance is great fun and La Lollo is an alluring femme fatale, as you’d expect! This was damned by the critics but huge at the box office. Quoi de neuf?!

 

Murder! (1930)

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Of all of Hitchcock’s early sound films this is probably the most audacious, with its nods to Hamlet and negative portrayal of homosexuality. Herbert Marshall is the one juror in the case of Rex v. Diana Baring (Norah Baring) who believes the actress didn’t commit murder and conducts his own investigation. Behind every good man they say there’s a good woman and in Hitchcock’s case it was of course wife Alma Reville who adapted the novel (and play) Enter Sir John  by Clemence Dane. In later life he would say that you’re buying a play for its construction (so don’t mess with it) and in ways this suffers from the lack of technique enforced by the restrictions of sound cinema at the time (it was the director’s third foray). This is solved to a great extent by the use of the voiceover which has the effect of a series of soliloquies, appropriate for a man who used to tread the boards. Hitchcock was a friend of Gerald du Maurier and the character was more or less modelled on him – it was Marshall’s second sound film and he acquits himself convincingly. One searches for a continuity with later work but here we’re looking at the wrong woman instead of the wrong man (albeit she’s left holding the murder weapon) and even if this creaks like an old door needing some lubrication, the behind the scenes look at luvvies is interesting and there’s a very satisfying ending. In terms of innovation, Hitchcock wanted music so had to have a live orchestra playing. To make Marshall heard above the music and record everyone at once, he had the actor record his lines which were played back on a phonograph during the orchestra’s performance. That man was always full of ideas! He makes his customary appearance passing the murder victim’s house.

Brandy for the Parson (1952)

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Author Geoffrey Household described himself as “sort of bastard by Stevenson out of Conrad” and this was evident in his most famous works, Rogue Male and A Rough Shoot, in which landscape and an upright sort of  Englishness are so important. This is one of his milder stories from Tales of Adventurers, and it has a terrific piquancy about it. Bill (James Donald) and his fiancee Petronilla (the immensely stylish Jean Lodge), head off on their sailboat off the Kent coast where they bump into a young man Tony (Kenneth More) , literally, destroying his boat in the process. They agree to take him to France where unbeknownst to them he’s smuggling back kegs of brandy to a vintner’s in St James’ London (I guess with Brexit this sort of thing will be happening again in a few years!). A pre-dawn collision with a female yachter up a creek leads a customs man to start following them as their collective plans to sell the cargo get more and more complicated and knotty and more people are involved:  boy scouts, a laundryman, a circus, a farmer, a pub landlord. More is the least likely spiv you’ll ever meet, which is a lot of the fun here, as he leaves Bill and Petronilla to lead packponies up a Roman road to their chosen meeting point. Charles Hawtrey, Michael Trubshawe, Frederick Piper and Alfie Bass round out a wonderful ensemble in a film which makes brilliant use of locations.  Adapted by John Dighton and Walter Mead with additions by associate producer Alfred Shaughnessy, who was married to the impressive Lodge. There’s an unexpectedly exciting score by the brilliant John Addison, who would later win the Academy Award for Tom Jones. (He also scored another Kenneth More film, Reach for the Sky.) A different kind of afternoon delight! Who knew? (And the title is from Kipling.)