Christopher 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.
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?
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.
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