Long before there was the cinema there was the circus. So it is no surprise that the circus itself would become the subject of a number of films, from Big Top Pee Wee to The Greatest Show On Earth to Mr. Lonely. Yet, very few films seem to do the circus any justice. Conceptually, allowing the camera to control the audiences’ gaze, Jonas Mekas’ Notes On The Circus realizes the energy and titillation of circus goers. But in the field of narrative filmmaking, only two American films spring to mind as depicting the circus as the bizarre social structure that it is for its performers. One is Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932); the other is Carol Reed’s Trapeze (1957).
Trapeze is heavily indebted to Freaks. Freaks did, after all, provide the blue print for creating successful tableaux of circus performers as an ensemble navigating the social hierarchy of the big top. But Trapeze is not a gothic morality tale; it’s a melodrama about an ill-fated love triangle. And unlike Browning, Reed was a strict genre filmmaker till that point, working heavily with the espionage drama, which was so popular in the immediate wake of WWII. Where Freaks focuses on the lowest members of the circus totem pole (the freaks), Trapeze focuses its narrative on the romantic heroes of the circus, the trapeze artists.
Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) is a retired high-flyer, working the rigging at a French circus. He had injured himself performing the most difficult trick for a trapeze artist, the triple somersault. One day, Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) arrives. An accomplished trapeze artist himself, Tino enlists Mike to coach him, be his catcher and teach him the infamous “triple”. All is going well, and the pair is preparing for opening night when Tino falls for Lola (Gina Lollobrigida), who has just lost her own act. Soon, she’s playing Tino, vying for a place in the trapeze act. Mike is resistant at first, and soon Lola is pitting both men against each other.
The narrative is familiar and a little stale, relying heavily upon convention. It is Reed’s skill as a director that gives the film an added depth. He peppers the film with secondary characters. These characters reoccur, are given dimension, and in some cases are even scene-stealers like Johnny Puleo. This is the strength of the film. Out of the main cast, only Lancaster (a former circus performer himself) seems to understand the necessity of Reed’s decision. He never upstages his co-stars, and is familiar with the mutual respect performers show one another in the circus. Curtis and Lollobrigida seem awkward and out of place most of the time. Their upstaging creates an impenetrable plasticity for the audience.
Why then is this uneven melodrama significant? Historically speaking, it’s one of the few films of its moment controlled by its star (Lancaster), helmed by a major director and yet arranges its narrative flow around supporting players and the manufacturing of an environment. It’s a convention few directors attempt to dabble in and even fewer succeed in (with the exception of Robert Altman, James Ivory and John Cassavetes).