Lawrence Russell

Trapeze (1956) dir. Carol Reed writ. James R. Webb (based on Max Catto's novel The Killing Frost) cine. Robert Krasker music Malcolm Arnold star. Burt Lancaster (Mike Ribble), Tony Curtis (Tino Orsini), Gina Lollobrigida (Lola), Katy Jurado (Rosa), Sid James (snake charmer), Thomas Gomez, John Puleo, Minor Watson

United Artists

Imagine the Garden of Eden, say, as a circus. Put it in Paris (Cirque d'Hiver), have lots of animals, have two American trapeze artists compete for the affections of an Italian trampoline artist whose waist is so small a man could close his hands around it, and you've got the makings of an allegory.

Mike Ribble (Lancaster) is a man without an act. In the prologue scene before the credits, you see him take the fall that leaves him with an injured leg, a triple roll gone bad. Only six men have ever mastered the triple and Ribble is one of them. Enter Tino Orsini (Curtis), a young flyer fresh from Brooklyn, sent by his father to find the maestro and become the seventh man to do the triple. He arrives one day wearing a natty bomber jacket and packing his bar and rigging in a sling bag. He scarcely notices Lola (Lollobrigida), the shapely young woman on the trampoline as his eyes search the riggings overhead. He asks the snake man where Ribble is -- no, never heard of him. The dwarf -- no, never heard of him. Orsini's naivete is masked by his earnestness, and the politics of the big ring roll off him unregistered.

The action remains tight to the circus and immediate environs. Thus it develops like a stage play, complete with routines and exits left and right. As Orsini badgers the alcoholic Ribble, the joi de vie of the circus never stops. Orsini follows him into the street doing flips, even co-ops some construction scaffolding to showcase his gymnastic chops. Ribble remains unimpressed: "Want some advice?" he says. "Fly back to Brooklyn while you can still fly."

Ribble hobbles into the nearby Cafe Des Artistes, but even here he can't escape the memory of what he once was. As he broods over a beer, his gaze is drawn to the gently swaying lights overhead, suspended from the ceiling like a trapeze bar. Rosa, a former lover, intercedes on behalf of Orsini, who continues to pitch his case. A crippled flyer can be a catcher, they can be a team -- why not? Ribble's resistance is overcome, and the next day the two men are aloft, practicing doubles. The double roll is a fitting metaphor for a team of two -- just as the ideal of the triple becomes a metaphor for what happens when Lola inserts herself into the act.

Lola is a schemer, someone who will do what she has to do in order to gain her ambition. "I would rather be a tiny part of a great act than a big part of a tiny act," she says. With the blessing of the sleazy circus boss, the proverbial fat man with a pencil moustache and a monkey for a companion, she begins her subterfuge. First she gets rid of her trampoline clowns, then sets about tempting Ribble. As Ribble lies on the ring apron recovering from a mid-air collision, he sees a sequined apparition suspended eloquently from a practice rope. Lola is dressed for her new act, although in Eden this new act would be called sex.

"How do you like my new costume?" she purrs.

Ribble plays along, although he isn't buying into Lola's seduction routine. In her dressing room he says, "You really fly high" and she replies, "Because I'm not afraid of anything...." He takes a kiss, then pushes her away, says, "But I am afraid -- that's why I'm sticking to a 2 act."

Trapeze: Gina Lollobrigida Trapeze: Lancaster and Lollobrigida

Exit Ribble to a fusillade of Italian curses... yet this is only a temporary setback for the determined Lola. She quickly ensnares Orsini, who's as eager to be in love as he is to achieve the triple. Easily swayed by the flattery and sexual favour of the child-woman, Orsini decides Lola must be in the act. Meanwhile Otto, Ribble's old catcher, shows up and is slotted as his replacement by the devious circus boss. All these double-dealing politics seem quite natural, although no one seems to ask why Otto is a good substitute as he's the catcher who dropped Ribble in the botched triple that injured Ribble in the first place.

Ribble's tribulations aren't confined to female applause freaks, dumb male flyers and greedy bosses -- after a row with a jealous horse-trainer, he's attacked by a lion. After he saves himself, he then saves Lola during an attack from her angry former trampoline partners... and of course it's not long before he's deep into a torrid affair with this woman whose "legs have always been strong."

How does his young protege discover this double-cross? Orsini's mind is poisoned by the circus boss, who tells him to follow the old woman with the cane. This sequence is one of the most interesting in the film, fraught with symbolism and dramatic tension. Orsini follows the old woman in black as she transports Ribble's cane from the circus to a nearby hotel where Ribble and Lola are making love in an attic room. Enraged by this betrayal, Orsini "fires" Ribble from the act and determines to achieve the triple that night with Otto instead. Yes, tensions run high in the circus... but have you ever seen Burt Lancaster as a weakling denied?

The story of a crippled man who achieves a measure of freedom from his affliction when he "flies" is an easy fit for Lancaster, a graduate of the circus culture himself. His "walk-and-talk" rapport with Curtis anticipates their superb master-slave routines in the acerbic Sweet Smell of Success. The tight, elliptical narrative with its sense of live theatre also prefigures Sweet Smell of Success, an influence derived in part from the fact that both films had British directors. While Carol Reed is better known for his grim post-war morality tale The Third Man, the over-lapping actions and character cameos of Trapeze conceal a lot of sophisticated scene direction. The De Luxe color cinematography of the aerialists is always convincing and dramatic, and the seedy claustrophobia of life with the animals in the world below has the weird and gritty authenticity of a colorized period postcard.

© LR 11/2000


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