High Wire Actors

How nice! Out of the blue, regular Shadowplayer Chris Schneider offers me a piece on Elia Kazan’s oft-dismissed cold war/iron curtain circus drama, MAN ON A TIGHTROPE. And I am delighted to receive it, and pass it on to you ~

What a joy to find out that the Kazan-directed MAN ON A TIGHTROPE is every bit as good as one hoped it would be.


I had vague memories of seeing MAN ON A TIGHTROPE as a child. A decade or two later, I chanced while channel-surfing on Terry Moore and Cameron Mitchell being swept by a river with “The Moldau” on the soundtrack. This time ’round I watched because of the names Elia Kazan and Gloria Grahame, the latter visible as a circus-director’s sluttish second wife. And I’ll stand by my verdict offered midway through: heavy-handed, yes, but drippin’ with atmosphere and good performances.

Franz Waxman’s score for this story of a Czech circus is heavy on the “Moldau.” Also on the Harry Warren tune “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” which must have made the Fox studio people happy. The clowns dance to it, you see.


MAN ON A TIGHTROPE stands midway, in Kazan’s credits, between VIVA ZAPATA! and ON THE WATERFRONT. We get Kazan as director, Robert E. Sherwood of THE PETRIFIED FOREST as scenarist, and Gerd Oswald of A KISS BEFORE DYING and CRIME OF PASSION as one of the producers. Also, crucially, there’s out-of-studio shooting on Bavarian location, which makes for a look that’s black&white, bleak, and full of mittel-europaische detail.

Gloria Grahame is always worth seeing. I’ve yet to watch MANSION OF THE DOOMED, but I probably will. Hell, I’m even happy with her talking at the tv contestants in MELVIN AND HOWARD.

Here Grahame’s fine, at the end, tossing aside a life-sized doll, one of the clown props, with the implication that she’s tossing aside her assigned role as pretty useless wife. There’s a good MARNIE-esque bit with husband March veering and the camera getting closer and closer.

Not exactly defensible, this last bit of behavior, but effective as pathology.

I should probably expand on that “heavy-handed.”

This is very much a Cold War film. Fredric March, as protagonist, plays the weary cuckolded director of a shabby circus who leads his people in an escape from behind the Iron Curtain. (That’s a phrase my Spellcheck keeps changing to “Zircon Curtain.”)

March “regains his manhood,” if you wanna call it that, and the respect of wife Grahame in this escape, leading the circus from a place where authorities demand that he adjust — and ruin — the ideological implications of a clown act to a place where U.S. border guards laugh at the clowns freely. In other words: it’s a case of “East Europeans, glum; U.S. representatives, uproarious.”

There’s also the presence of Adolphe Menjou as a party lackey who smirks and threatens March. Similar in function to the Ward Bond role in JOHNNY GUITAR, I thought; both instances of off-screen rep adding to on-screen menace.

Which leads to that river and “The Moldau” sweeping along March’s daughter Moore and her Americanski boyfriend Mitchell. A bit reminiscent, this, of that old James Agee joke about tendentious WW2 melodramas and how “You cannot keel da spirit off a free pipples!” Or words to that effect.

People complain about the atmosphere of guilt and humiliation on display in MAN ON A TIGHTROPE. But isn’t that the bread-and-butter of circus pictures, from HE WHO GETS SLAPPED up through SAWDUST AND TINSEL and onwards?

“Women are not angels,” Grahame half-sings at one point. Neither are the people who made MAN ON A TIGHTROPE. And that includes directors who name names.

I admire the atmosphere of MAN ON A TIGHTROPE.

I admire the performances — even by a post-LITTLE SHEBA Moore playing what one lyricist once called “a nice girl who’s really not too nice.”

I admire the film’s passing bits of schmerzlich-suss … such as, f’rinstance, Alex D’Arcy’s lion-tamer remarking that his curse has been his good looks.


The film itself is schmerzlich-suss. Indeed.

9 Responses to “High Wire Actors”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Can’t say I’m normally a fan of Elia Kazan. In part, it’s his real-life role as a McCarthy informer. More seriously, it’s his determination to foist the egregious Marlon Brando on us in film after film after film.

    But MAN OUT A TIGHTROPE sounds truly fascinating (not least because the piece is beautifully written) and I will most definitely hunt it down.

    A week or so ago, I sat through Terry Moore’s live video commentary to THE OUTLAW in the company of Jane Russell. (Terry, not me, I hasten to add.) “A nice girl who’s really not so nice?” That’s a rather good way of putting it.

    BTW, are we about to experience a surplus of Late Fredric March?

  2. This book on Mike Connolly of “The Hollywood Reporter” explains precisely why and under what circumstances Gadge named names. Originally he was just going to confess party membership for himself alone. But Connolly — a vicious self-loathing closet case in the J.Edgar Hoover mold — told him that “On the Waterfront” would never be made if he didn’t eat the whole enchilada. And Connolly had the power to back up his words. In Ezra Goodman’s invaluable “The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood” Connolly is mentioned, but not by name, as a closeted creep with enormous power in Hollywood.

  3. Man on a Tightrope would seem less troublesome if made by anyone else — depicting life in Eastern Block countries as oppressive should hardly be controversial. In fact, this one strikes me as less problematic than On the Waterfront, which reads like an apologia for snitching.

    I like Brando, myself. And they only made a few films together. My fave may be Viva Zapata! which is also the favourite film of another, better, Connolly: Billy.

  4. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    I still remember watching VIVA ZAPATA! on TV as a child. It was on just a few weeks after VIVA MARIA! which was my favourite movie back then – so I was expecting something in a similar vein.

    As I watched, I complained to my mother that I could not understand most of what Marlon Brando was saying. She replied: “That’s what he does, dear. He mumbles.”

    I then asked “But how can he be be an actor when he can’t even talk?” I have never had a satisfactory answer to that question. Then or now.

  5. My mum had a similar experience with James Dean in Giant, and got the giggles, whereas she liked Brando. Different mumbles for different folks.

    But I can well see how VZ would seem disappointing after VM!

  6. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    The only Brando performance I have ever really enjoyed was in THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU. I think he finally found his level with that one!

  7. chris schneider Says:

    After I gave this to David, I learned that the cinematographer (Georg Krause) is the same man who shot Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY.

    I left off a sentence, toward the end, about one scene I particularly liked — basically because I was accumulating too many little-known names. Dorothea Wieck of MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM shows up, though, as one of the circus people. A self-appointed “duchess.” March fires her, though he doesn’t want to, at the Party’s behest, because she’s too visibly French and non-proletarian. A vivid bit of showbiz Realpolitik.

  8. Very excited about watching this again now, as we’re Alexander D’Arcy completists.

  9. I wonder if Larry Hama ever saw this movie, as the story is basically one of the subplots in the G.I. Joe comic (during a bit involving an infiltration of Eastern European country “Borovia”).

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