Monday, November 15, 2010

Man on a Tightrope

I mentioned a week ago in conjunction with the new Elia Kazan box set that one of the new-to-DVD movies, Man on a Tightrope, was coming up soon on the Fox Movie Channel. That "soon" is tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM ET.

The scene is Czechoslovakia of the early 1950s, not long after the Communist takeover. Fredric March plays Karel Černik, the head of a circus troupe who also used to be its owner until the circus was nationalized by the Communist authorities. He doesn't like the Communists not only because they've taken his circus, but because the Communists were constantly engaging in arbitrary impositions on everybody that made life difficult: you didn't know how the Communists were going to make like difficult next, or whether they were going to come after you. His personal life is also a mess, with a second wife (Gloria Grahame) with whom he's having relationship problems as she likes some of the better-looking members of the troupe; and a daughter (Terry More) who, having grown up, is showing interest in men (Cameron Mitchell) her father doesn't particularly approve of.

So, it's only natural that Mr. Černik has a desire to escape. Escape alone isn't really an option as it would leave his family and the circus troupe he really does like behind. So, he comes up with a daring plot that would have his troupe go to the border to "perform" for the border guards, and "perform" their way right across the border. One of the many impositions put upon the circus troupe, however, was the implanting of spies, so Černik has to be careful about whom he lets in on his plan for escape. The one person who does know, and has the power to stop Černik, is the local Party boss, played by Adolphe Menjou. And he certainly plans to stop them....

Man on a Tightrope is a well-acted little movie with a tight storyline. After the end of the Hollywood blacklist, the anti-anti-Communists have held sway, with the result that anything anti-Communist from the early 1950s gets unfairly maligned. Sure, some of the movies are lousy, but some such as this one are quite good. What's interesting about its portrayal of Communism is that it's doesn't do anything lurid to portray the Communist violence against the individual, the way that movies like The Big Heat or The Phenix City Story are very up front about the badness of their antagonists. Instead, the inherent evil of Communism is shown in people being forced to lie to themselves and the people closest to them, as well as in a thoroughly arbitrary state. Indeed, as with the Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union, the heavy hand of the state can even hit local bosses like the one portrayed by Menjou.

I'm glad that Man on a Tightrope has gotten a DVD release, becuase it's an underrated movie that really deserves more attention.

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