Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Circus of Fear (1966)


Circus of Terror

Circus of Fear is a solid if underwhelming crime thriller derived from the Edgar Wallace novel The Three Just Men (1926). It is not as some might assume a horror film despite the appearance of Christopher Lee. Lee spends the majority of the film underneath a black hood, and is only a visible screen presence in the last ten minutes or so. The casting of Klaus Kinski in a typically brief and totally pointless cameo however is a stronger indication of this films relationship to the West German ‘krimi’ films. This cycle of movies, almost exclusively based upon the stories of Edgar Wallace reached a point of saturation in the 1960’s and in certain regards were a major influence on the embryonic first steps of the Italian giallo film. There is a definite relationship between the two, one which generally seems to be overlooked in histories of the form. If there is ever an area of popular European cinema worthy of further elucidation and research then it is certainly the Wallace ‘krimi’ movies. Circus of Fear is an Anglo-German co-production, and the film as a result benefits from some intriguing casting decisions. The main creative force behind it was Harry Alan Towers, a significant producer of low budget genre pictures in the 60’s and 70’s who in this case also put his hand to writing the screenplay. Perhaps the less said about that the better; this is a highly confusing and clumsily plotted movie which is unable to make full and proper use of an interesting ensemble cast.

These plot inconsistencies and weakness are not initially noticeable in the superbly orchestrated heist sequence that opens the film. The director John Moxey who had helmed an atmospheric tale of modern day witchcraft in the Lovecraftian City of the Dead (1960) has a gift for composing tense scenes of action. The camera makes excellent use of London’s Tower Bridge, a space which is eerily desolate (no doubt due to an early morning shoot), and the empty roads speak of an urban alienation which makes the hold up of a security van strangely effective. The murder of one of the security men is enough to sour even the best laid plans, but the shady presence of the steely eyed Klaus Kinski has already offered an indicator of the internationalism of this crime syndicate. The intelligence behind the plan is the mystery that propels the plot forward, and one of the major successes of the film is situating this mystery within a circus that has taken up its winter residence in the Berkshire countryside. For once the police investigation retains as much interest as the murder, intrigue and subterfuge abroad at the circus. This is entirely due to the charm, wit and charisma of Leo Genn who plays Elliot, the detective in charge of the case. His clashes with his hopelessly out of touch superior Sir John (Cecil Parker) provides a humour that contrasts effectively with the melodrama and skulduggery of the circus.

The circus acts as a very good space for concealment, not just of the large amount of stolen cash, but also of cultural diversity. A plethora of characters are introduced with rapid (and confusing) succession, with only a few holding any kind of intrigue for the audience. The hooded lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) is an extended red herring, whose reasons for wearing his hood are explained by a messy subplot. Lee is on autopilot, and like in early roles for Hammer communicates as much through his size and body language than any kind of emotional expression. One of the better characters is a sleazy dwarf (Skip Martin - who was also great as Hop Toad in The Masque of the Red Death [1964]) who listens in at keyholes and blackmail’s Gregor. The remaining characters are perfunctory and unmemorable and clutter up the mystery with predictable red herrings. This is an over-populated film, and although there is some culling, such a multitude strain the brief running time. The murder sequences are curiously bloodless and mild mannered, and when it comes to screen violence the film has a quaintness of attitude.

The last ten minutes of the film are particularly rushed and contrived, and a general lack of storytelling patience mars the whole venture. The editing doesn’t help this, as it leads characters to enter scenes equipped with knowledge the audience has yet to gain access too. This brand of restricted narration works if it is part of coherent strategy, but Circus of Fear feels as though it suffered some kind of butchery. The final sequence in which the criminal mastermind is unveiled in a  knife throwing act is symptomatic of a nonsensical and impatient screenplay. In moments of exposition the director is significantly less capable, many scenes are static and dull. The overall amateurishness of the production is a major stumbling block, but this is more than compensated for by the excellent performance by Leo Genn and the enigmatic authority of Messrs Lee and Kinski.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. I am very interested in picking this one up, which has been cemented by the review Shaun. I have been in love with CITY OF THE DEAD for some time now, and can't wait to see what else Moxey has in store!

  2. It's not a particularly good film Carl, but it never tries to exceed its obvious limitations. Although Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski are only in it briefly, their inclusion is enough to merit a view.


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