Friday, January 9, 2015

Trapeze (1956)

Trapeze is one of the classic circus movies. Although this 1956 film is an American production it was made by one of Britain’s top directors (Sir Carol Reed), shot in Paris and features an Italian co-star.

Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) had been one of the greatest of trapeze artists until he misjudged a triple aerial somersault. Now he has a crippled leg and works at the Cirque d’Hiver as a rigger. His career as an aerialist is over. Or so he thinks, and then Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) shows up one day. Orsini belongs to a circus family and his father has told him that he has already taught him everything he knows. The only man who can teach him more is Mike Ribble.

Ribble isn’t interested until he discovers that Orsini has real talent. Very great talent. With Ribble to teach him he could be one of the greats. And with Ribble as his catcher they could be a great team.

Everything is going smoothly. Ribble and Orsini get along well and they work well together. That situation is about to change, thanks to Lola (Gina Lollobrigida). Lola has her own acrobatic act but the circus manager, Bouglione (Thomas Gomez), can’t find room on the bill for Lola and her three partners. Lola has no intention of being squeezed out. If her own act is a washout she will muscle in on someone else’s. She will persuade Ribble and Orsini to include her in their act. They don’t want her but Lola is a very persuasive girl and her feminine charms are even more persuasive. She fails to seduce Ribble but she succeeds effortlessly with Orsini. Now it’s a three-person act but the inevitable romantic triangle ensures that this new partnership is going to be very stormy, to say the least.

Lola already has a bad reputation for doing this sort of thing. She is ambitious and ruthless and manipulative and she is quite willing to use her body to get what she wants.

There’s a minor sub-plot involving Mike Ribble’s old flame Rosa (Katy Jurado) but the main focus is on the explosive Ribble-Orsini-Lola triangle. Lola has manipulated poor Tino into falling hopelessly in love with her but she has meanwhile fallen in love with Ribble. This is clearly going to end rather messily.

Burt Lancaster was ideal casting for this movie. Being an ex-circus acrobat obviously helped. Lancaster could at times be overly intense but in this film he manages to be both intense and sympathetic. It’s a fine performance, in fact one of his best. Tony Curtis is just as good. Curtis is very underrated as an actor and he combines a certain sexual naïvete (poor Tino is hopelessly out of his depth with the unscrupulous and manipulative Lola) with a youthful arrogance that never becomes irritating.  

Gina Lollobrigida actually has the trickiest rôle. While we are appalled by Lola’s scheming she is not entirely an unsympathetic character. She is a woman who has always used sex and love to get what she wants from men but now that talent has backfired on her as she loses control of her emotions. Lola has fallen in love. Lollobrigida handles the rôle very effectively and the chemistry between her and Lancaster is sizzling. Lollobrigida’s performance is fiery but it’s not without subtlety.

Trapeze makes a fascinating comparison with that other great 1950s circus movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. The material might be more or less identical but DeMille and Reed handle it in radically different ways. The circus itself is the star and the central character in DeMille’s movie. Reed on the other hand is mainly interested in the emotional triangle. The circus itself only matters insofar as it matters to the characters. The Greatest Show on Earth is a magnificent spectacle and it’s enormous fun but it’s unashamedly hokey, and deliberately so (DeMille never did anything that wasn’t deliberate). Trapeze is a human drama. Trapeze is the better movie, which is not to take anything away from The Greatest Show on Earth.

Trapeze certainly has its share of spectacle as well, with plenty of impressive stunt work and plenty of rich circus atmosphere.

MGM’s Region 2 DVD release of Trapeze boasts an anamorphic transfer which is quite acceptable. It is however obvious that no full-scale restoration has been attempted. The colours are not as vibrant as they might be and there is minor print damage. This is a movie that really deserves a proper restoration and a Blu-Ray release.

Trapeze succeeds as both circus movie and human drama. Superb performances by all three leads (they all quite rightly get equal billing) and Reed’s masterful but unobtrusive direction make this movie very much worth seeking out. Highly recommended.

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