Man on a Tightrope
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Fredric March, Terry Moore, Gloria Grahame, and Cameron Mitchell
Twentieth Century-Fox, 1953, 105 minutes
Following his friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, director Elia Kazan’s reputation was under assault from both sides of the political spectrum. The New York and Hollywood Left were outraged that he had named names of former fellow communists while the studio heads were concerned about the moviegoing public’s reaction to the news that their leading director was an ex-Red. Fox mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck, convinced Kazan to direct “Man on a Tightrope,” to demonstrate his loyalty to his country. The film was one of several anti-communist propaganda pieces released during the height of the Red Scare. Kazan reluctantly agreed to direct the film but he made it clear in later interviews that it was definitely not one of his fondest memories.
Mild-mannered Karel Cernik (Frederic March) and his broken-down circus struggle to survive in post-war, communist-controlled Czechoslovakia. The state security apparatchiks constantly harass Cernik and the circus looking for “irregularities” and affronts to “the people.” Cernik finally has enough and secretly plots the circus’s escape to West Germany, but the situation is complicated by his wife Zama’s (Gloria Grahame) disdain for him and her very public infidelity and by his daughter Tereza’s (Terry Moore) attraction to a mysterious new roustabout, Joe Videk (Cameron Mitchell), a possible state spy. When Cernik senses the communists are close to discovering his plan, he sets things in motion and Zama suddenly has a newfound respect for her now-decisive husband. As the circus travels toward the border crossing, it’s revealed that Krofta (Richard Boone), Cernik’s foreman, is actually the state’s spy. Krofta is killed in a struggle but manages to mortally wound Cernik. The circus successfully crosses the border into West Germany with the dead messiah-figure, Cernik, in tow.
This film is based upon the true story of the Circus Brumbach, which escaped from East Germany to Bavaria in 1950. Kazan filmed on location in West Germany and actually used Circus Brumbach for the project. Frederic March was on the blacklist because of his Far Left sympathies but Kazan used his influence to get him casted. Kazan balanced the playbill by casting the politically Far Right actor, Adolphe Menjou, as one of the lead security apparatchiks. The pairing of 55-year-old March with 30-year-old, film noir femme fatale, Grahame is a stretch. When Zama goads Cirnik into slapping her and then smiles approvingly because her husband has finally displayed some manly backbone, today’s viewer will be quite shocked. Sorry, that won’t fly today. Alex D’Arcy as the cowardly lion tamer and the object of Zama’s unrequited affections is a hoot. The romantic sub-plot involving Cam Mitchell and the constantly overwrought Terry Moore should have been left on the cutting room floor.
I like this movie a little bit more with each viewing. There’s no mistaking that it’s a Red Scare propaganda piece meant to placate audiences regarding Kazan’s loyalty but the film has some very good performances (March, Grahame, Menjou, Pat Henning, Paul Hartman) and it’s entertaining to watch how this rag tag (and I mean RAG TAG) circus manages the impossible of escaping to freedom right under the noses of the Czech communist security apparatus. Propaganda piece or not, Eastern Europeans endured unbelievably great hardship under Soviet communist rule from 1945-1989. Liberals still hate Kazan (d. 2003) as the ultimate rat fink but how were American communists and their sympathetic fellow travelers able to square their theoretical ideology with the deadly realities of Joseph Stalin and the Iron Curtain?
Trivia alert: Don’t blink or you’ll miss a cameo from Fess Parker (Davy Crockett) as one of the U.S. border guards at the end of the film.
“Man on a Tightrope” is one of three of Kazan’s nineteen films not available as a single DVD. However, it is available as one of the fifteen films in The Elia Kazan Collection box set. No commentary or any other bonus features were included.
Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective
I thank the Lord I live in a (still) free country although individual freedoms have been gradually eroding here for quite some time. But spiritual freedom in Jesus Christ trumps political freedom every time. The world could never comprehend it but the apostle Paul, bound in Rome prior to his execution, was the spiritually free man while the Roman emperor (Nero?) was the actual prisoner – to sin. Praise the Lord Jesus Christ for leading believers out of darkness to eternal life!