Directed by Carol Reed.
Starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Gina Lollobrigida, Katy Jurado, Thomas Gomez, Johnny Puleo, Minor Watson and Sid James.
A retired master trapeze artist takes an aspiring aerialist under his wing, but their friendship comes under threat by the arrival of a beautiful and driven acrobat.
It wouldn’t be going out on too much of a limb to guess that most reading this have never been to a big top circus in their entire lives. It just fell out of mainstream fashion, like opera and stage magicians had done long before. Even so, films about circuses rarely surprise us. We know the sorts of characters we’ll find here; bombastic ring-masters, miserable clowns, highly sexed acrobats.
Then there’s Trapeze. The crucial, surprising thing about this film is that it purposely leans on this cliché of supple, sexy trapeze artists having passionate affairs. It leans on it until, by all rights, it ought to break. It doesn’t. Perhaps because the lead is so aptly cast, perhaps because Carol Reed can take any script he likes and make astonishing cinema, perhaps a lot of things. Let’s look into the matter.
Burt Lancaster is Mike Ribble, an American acrobat who attempted the near-impossible triple mid-air somersault and failed, disastrously. That was a long time ago. Now he just rigs the ropes and limps around on a cane, drinking and dreaming of former glories. Then a promising young acrobat (Tony Curtis) pops up out of nowhere, looking for the legendary Mike Ribble, the only man alive who can teach him the triple.
Tino Orsini is desperate to be a flyer; he shows Mike everything he learned watching him in the big top, swinging and swooping through the air with the greatest of ease. Mike isn’t interested. He can see the kid’s great potential easily enough, but he also sees his own miserable failure. Tino pulls every aerial trick he can think of to impress his hero, all to no effect. An old flame (Katy Jurado) finally convinces Mike that he needs to get back in the air anyway; he’s wasting his life doing odd jobs for lesser acts when he and Tino could be the stars of the show.
Ribble and Orsini, it turns out, compliment each other nicely. The training montage that follows does a tremendous job of setting up a partnership that depends entirely on one man’s absolute trust of the other. Tino is the flyer, leaping and soaring from the bar to Mike, the catcher. The two must be completely in sync, their clocks running to the same time. If they can’t manage that, they fall. They crash into each other. They get hurt, or worse. Mike’s dodgy leg is by no means the worst injury an acrobat is prone to.
Camera angles in these sequences twist and swing with their every terrifying arc, so that you cannot fail to appreciate just how hard it is for a trapeze artist to keep balance. Lancaster himself was a circus flyer before a similar injury ended his career in the big top. Depending on who you listen to, Lancaster either performed all or most of these aerial stunts himself, not so hard to believe considering his wiry, athletic physique. All the stunt performers in Trapeze deserve special credit; the act itself is the heart and soul of the film, and they sell the reality of it without question.
In the middle of all this budding brotherhood steps a woman. Lola (Gina Lollobrigida) is pretty much out for number one. She’s a foxy fame bitch and she’ll stop at nothing to be the star of the show, no matter who she needs to seduce to get there. Lola’s tumbling act is scratched from the show, so she ditches her friends and tries her hand at barging in on Ribble and Orsini’s act.
Lola doesn’t ask Mike or Tino for anything; she lets her looks and charms do the business for her, playing mind games with these men for a chance in the spotlight. Within no time at all we have a classic love triangle on our hands, with all the tense looks and harsh words and secret assignations that implies.
This ought to be the meatiest part of the film, but with borderline ham performances from Lollobrigida and Curtis, you soon find that any scenes that take us away from the big top soon get a bit dense and melodramatic. Curtis’ immense talent for comedy is more or less wasted here, as he’s reduced to following his co-stars around like a puppy.
You become very aware that this is Lancaster’s show. For pure, believable dramatic acting, his co-stars really do struggle to compete with him scene to scene. The man’s screen presence is formidable to say the least, his face so often a mask of anguish for his partner, lured into a sham affair, and for himself, helplessly in love with the woman who is tearing his hopes and ambitions apart with her scheming.
The real tensions between the three show up best when they take to the ropes. We watch Ribble and Orsini fly and flip from far below, beneath the safety net, convinced they might fall at any moment from those dizzying heights. This is when Ribble and Orsini’s trust in each other is truly tested; when we daren’t look away, we daren’t blink, we daren’t even make a sound as the ringmaster takes the net away, hoping in vain to put his stars off trying for a triple.
By this point, after all that’s happened, it could be glory for them, or it could just as easily be tragedy. Trapeze itself could be written off for a circus melodrama, if not for Carol Reed’s very real, unshaking instinct for danger, passion and dilemma. The man knew what he was doing. Put yourself in his talcum-powdered hands.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.