Circus of Fear (1966) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Circus_of_Fear_FilmPosterChristopher Lee and Klaus Kinski co-star in this Anglo-German whodunit marketed as a sensational Edgar Wallace thriller. Some sources claim the story of bank robbers hiding out with a travelling circus was based on Wallace’s The Three Just Men, while others credit a short story, ‘The Man Without a Face.’ If truth be told, one imagines this is pretty much an ‘original’ by producer Harry Alan Towers. We begin with an elaborate heist sequence …

I submit this review for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

“The most horrifying syndicate of evil in history!”

The opening sequence, in which we see band of criminals hijack a van transporting bags of cash before making their getaway by sliding off Tower Bridge and sailing off int their docklands hideout, lasts about 10 minutes and is virtually dialogue free, something that seemed to have become a stylistic requirement of the genre even since the success of Rififi in the 1950s. the plan went slightly wrong as the driver was shot by Nolan (Victor Maddern), the other guard and team’s inside man. He is told to take the loot, £250,000, to a lonely spot that turns out to be where the Barberini Circus is preparing to bed down for the end of the season. Nolan is felled by a knife with a distinctive silver triangle that is thrown with enviable prevision.

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When the marked banknotes start to turn up near Windsor, Inspector Elliott (a typically twinkly, vaguely self-mocking performance by Leo Genn) is sent o investigate. Before long other members of the circus troupe are also killed with knives from the same set – but who is the culprit? Is it Gregor (Christopher Lee), the lion tamer who wears a mask in public to hide hideous scars, or his niece (the beautiful Suzy Kendall)? Could it be the jealous knife thrower (Maurice Kaufmann) or his faithless fiancée (Margaret Lee)? The ringmaster with the secret agenda (Heinz Drach), the blackmailing little person nicknamed “Mr Big” (Skip Martin) pr the accountant who wants to be a clown (Eddi Arent)? And what of the criminal played by a menacing and mono-syllabic Klaus Kinski?

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This is a very old-fashioned whodunit, one that goes out of its way to fool the audience with several ruses and red herrings and which is very entertaining in its own way though it does take a bit too long to get going after it’s strong opening with the robbery – but then Towers’ scripts tend to be clunky, better at creating set-pieces than any sense of dramatic momentum. It is quite close to the style of the Edgar Wallace series that had just concluded at Merton Park Studios (and which I profiled here) and many of the last of which were directed with equal efficiency by John Moxey, who had made the startling The City and the Dead (aka Horror Hotel) with Christopher Lee a few years earlier. This film isn’t even remotely up to that stylish standard, but sought to improve on the earlier Wallace films by the introduction of colour. Interestingly it was released in Germany in black and white to match the other films in their own local series that usually co-starred Kinski and Drach so as not to usurp the introduction of colour to their ongoing local releases, which was just round the corner.

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The German version, which is also several minutes shorter and which privileges Drach in the editing and adds extra scenes with him and Kendall at the end, is credited to Werner Jacobs, a busy director in his day and it is possible that he may have done some of the directing of alternate material though most of it looks like Moxey’s work to me merely dubbed into German and not in any way re-shot, so it may be sensible to assume that this was more a union issues than a creative one. If you want to compare the versions, to view the 85-minute black and white German version, Das Rätsel des silbernen Dreieck , click here. In the US it was cut down to just over an hour by distributor AIP and screened, again in black and white, as Psycho-Circus.

DVD Availability: The US edition boasts an audio commentary with Moxey; the cheaper UK edition (an NTSC to PAL transfer unfortunately though it is rarely noticeable) offers both the standard release edition and a longer cut together with an Italian trailer and the alternate German finale. 

Circus of Fear (1966)
Director: John (Llewellyn) Moxey (and on German prints, Werner Jacobs)
Producer: Harry Alan Towers
Screenplay: Peter Welbeck (Harry Alan Towers)
Cinematography: Ernest Steward
Art Direction: Frank White
Music: Johnny Douglas
Cast: Christopher Lee, Leo Genn, Klaus Kinski, Suzy Kendall, Anthony Newlands, Margaret Lee, Cecil Parker, Victor Maddern, Heinz Drache, Skip Martin, Maurice Kaufmann, Eddi Arent

 

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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30 Responses to Circus of Fear (1966) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Sergio – I know exactly what you mean about the way a film’s pacing can get off to a slow start. And clunky dialogue doesn’t help. Still, it sounds as though this one has a solid thread of mystery in it. Thanks as ever for sharing.

    • Thanks very much Margot – it’s a fun, unpretentious little whodunit with a decent cast – perfect for a wet Sunday afternoon!

      • Todd Mason says:

        Fun, pretentious sums up my assessment of ZARDOZ…I suspect you dropped a prefix at the keyboard somewhere…thanks and welcome back to the weekly traces!

        • Zardoz is definitely fun and pretentious – OK, now I have to hunt around to add an ‘un’ somewhere – and thanks Todd, great to be back :)

          • Todd Mason says:

            I see you found it! IYou’d accidentally typed, fun, pretentious in response to Margo above.)

          • I tell you Todd, if it’s not the brain it’s the fingers letting me down!

          • Todd Mason says:

            Well, I continue to be impressed, as I have been attempting to lurch my Spanish up to the chatting level again of late, with your prowess in at least a second language…and malfunctioning typing fingers and recalcitrant keyboards Will Out, or even Outrage.

          • Well, in all fairness, I have been living in the UK since the 80s so I can only blame the typos on stupidity and a lack of keyboard finesse – well done on the espanol though! Watched The Descendants with my brother in Australia the other week (not perfect but full of goof things) and thought of you (I’m sure you get that a lot whenver George Clooney appears on screen, right? :) )

  2. Colin says:

    A good appraisal of the movie, as always. I liked it even though it’s by no means a great film. The opening does suggest something better but I thought it remained entertaining at the very least throughout.

    On the subject of Wallace, I’ve been watching some of the Merton Park titles the last few days – variable quality but there’s always something to enjoy in these brisk little thrillers.

    • The Merton Park films are, as we have I suspect said before, just perfect for relaxation. I actually hadn;t seen this one before so I ended up doing a quick review just because it was a nice little surprise – i would clearly be wrong to make any great claims for it and if one were so inclined it wouldn;t be too hard to pick the who thing apart very quickly I dare say!

      • Colin says:

        I think you got across the good and weak points just fine. No, it wouldn’t stand a whole lot of scrutiny but it looks good and passes the time very nicely.

        Regarding the Merton Park movies, I’ll be watching a bunch more in the coming days – perfect late evening fare.

        • Quite tempted myself if I didn’t have all those Naked City episodes to watch!

          • Colin says:

            Should keep you occupied for a while! Actually, I’m alternating between the Wallace flicks and episodes of Columbo – really enjoying it too.

          • Columbo is just the best … Have you heard they are planning a remake with mark Ruffalo? Could work – Falk was, I think, technically the third person to play the role after Bert Freed and Thomas Mitchell

          • Colin says:

            To tell the truth, I didn’t know any of that. Ruffalo is a good actor – I liked him in The Brothers Bloom and Shutter Island although I may be alone on that – so that could indeed work.

          • I think Ruffalo’s superb (and the best David Banner / Hulk since Bixby and Ferrigno) – really impressive in so many films – in fact watched him in Zodiac at the weekend and remembered what a subtle actor he is, yet standing out with some pretty amazing competition there.

  3. robert says:

    Klaus Kinski’s carreer is really surprising… :)
    Able to play a 2 minutes awful part in a second or third rate western film or even classic ones, and in Aguirrre, Fitzcarraldo, or “l’Important c’est d’aimer”

    • He was certainly one of a kind! What is interesting for me is to see him in these smaller roles just when he was still far away from breaking through internationally though a lot of the roles didn’t desrrve his ‘best game’ – and usually didn’t get it!

  4. John says:

    I always get this one mixed up with the circus thriller starring Anton Differing. What’s that one called? CIRCUS OF HORRORS? He’s a criminal plastic surgeon on the run turning disfigured women in gorgeous aerialists and circus performers. After reading your review above I realize I’ve never seen this movie. Other than the title similarity and the circus setting I shouldn’t be confusing it with the Diffring movie. They’re not at all alike in terms of plot. I love a mystery movie set in the circus milieu. Remember the one with Judy Geeson and Joan Crawford? BESERK! There’s circus horror/mystery movie I absolutely love for it’s over-the-top luridness.

  5. Yvette says:

    I don’t know if I’d appreciate this as much as you, Sergio. But as usual, thanks for the introduction.
    I’m not a big fan of films that take place at the circus though once upon a time I was. Go figure. It’s funny how time changes everything.

  6. TracyK says:

    This sounds good, Sergio. Any film of this time period that is an “old-fashioned whodunit” would be fun.

  7. Sergio, this is an interesting film and review; of course, one I haven’t seen. I’d forgotten all about Klaus Kinski though I recall seeing him in a film or two as well as reading about his daughter Natasha in the eighties, I think. I’d like to see him alongside Christopher Lee, another fine actor who has slipped past me.

    • It is a fun little movie Prashant but both the stars have been much better elsewhere – Kinski is amazing in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo and Lee was rarely better than as Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

  8. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have seen this film. Though nothing great, I found it a pleasant and enjoyable whodunit. Worth seeing.

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