Friday, March 29, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.9: Elia Kazan's Man on a Tightrope

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 67/B

Elia Kazan had an incredible run in the 1950s, from instant classics (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) to strong social commentaries (Panic in the Streets, Viva Zapata!) to more controversial masterworks (Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd). One Kazan film from this period, however, is almost totally overlooked. 1953’s Man on a Tightrope is likely the least-seen film of Kazan’s prime, a Cold War era thriller that’s intelligent and well-made but never more than diverting. Still, the film isn’t without its charms even if it stands out as a decidedly minor work from a master.

Karel Cernik (Fredric March) is a Czech clown and the manager of the Cernik Circus. Cernik is stifled under the harsh communist regime, which constantly interferes and demands propaganda be put in his show. Cernik plans to escape across the border into Bavaria, but he suspects a spy in his circus after the Secret Police take him in for questioning. Cernik believes it to be Joe (Cameron Mitchell), actually an American deserter, who has fallen in love with his daughter Tereza (Terry Moore). Cernik’s closest friends suspect his wife Zama (Gloria Grahame). Cernik plans his escape, but Propaganda Minister Fesker (Adolphe Menjou) is hot on his tail.

Man on a Tightrope was filmed on location, as with most later Kazan films, in Germany. Most of the film’s action is set in or around the circus, but Kazan makes the most of the locations, which have an openness that suggests that freedom is just out of reach. A scene between Moore and Mitchell swimming in a German spring is particularly lovely in this regard (although it’s slightly distracting to hear Bedrich Smetana’s Vtalva in a film other than The Tree of Life). Better still is the contrast between the scenes in the circus, lively and inviting, and the scenes of an anxious, defensive March in the Secret Police state security offices.

The latter scenes are particularly good in showing Kazan’s strength at toying with psychology. March is down an almost funereal corridor to a room where two unnervingly bright lamps bear down on his face. In front of him are a pair of cold, humorless officials. Behind him, the false-charm of the grandfatherly Menjou. He cannot escape, and there’s a strong feeling of doom within the room. It’s a masterful, German Expressionist-worthy sequence. Kazan is also good at exploiting, and even subverting, other movements, particularly in his use of faces, which plays like a reverse version of Sergei Eisenstein, now critical of communism rather than laudatory.

The film is a bit thin, dealing with Kazan themes of alienation (March from Czechoslovakia, Mitchell from any sense of home) and family conflict (March with his lovelorn daughter Moore, his willful wife Grahame) in the margins but never completely satisfactorily. And while the film is of interest in its rebut of communism among the arts, considering Kazan’s testimony to the HUAC, it’s largely thrown to the wayside in the second half as the thriller business starts up. But it’s a well-crafted thriller with strong performances from March, Menjou, and Grahame, and being the least notable Kazan film from a period this strong is an honor.
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