I hadn't seen this film in at least fifteen years when it turned up on Movies4Men last week. I remember the first time that I saw it was after I'd recorded it from Channel Four's late schedule, having confused it with 1960's Circus of Horrors
. However, instead of a warped horror movie involving a deranged plastic surgeon populating the travelling circus he uses as a front with facelifted criminals, I found myself watching this 1966 crime drama starring horror icons Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski. I say 'starring', but both are effectively 'red herrings', neither being the main villain. Moreover, Lee's lion tamer spends most of the film with his face hidden behind a mask, (allegedly to hide the horrendous disfigurement resulting from a past big cat mauling but, in reality, to disguise the fact that he's really
the lion tamer's brother - also a lion tamer - an escaped murderer on the run). Kinski, by contrast, gets more screen time, but spends most of it lurking in dark corners and looking menacing until suffering an untimely demise.
Any worries I had that I was going to miss out on some schlocky low budget fun by watching the wrong circus movie were quickly allayed by the opening titles informing me that the film was produced by none other than the prolific Harry Allan Towers, (not to mention written by him under his 'Peter Welbeck' pseudonym), whose personal life was allegedly as colourful as his films, (he had to flee the US in the mid-sixties after being accused of running a vice ring, for instance - the charges were eventually dropped in 1985). The globe-trotting Towers put together low-budget international co-productions, often directed by the notorious Jesus Franco, (he also employed low-budget legend Lindsay Shonteff to direct at least one picture), featuring international casts and colourful foreign locations. Subject matter didn't seem to bother him: his output in the sixties and early seventies included horror, thrillers, erotica and women in prison pics. Perhaps his highest-profile films of the period were his five Fu Manchu films starring Christopher Lee in the lead role.
In the case of Circus of Fear
, Towers was clearly trying to tap into the 'Krimi' genre - dark German-made crime films, usually with a London-setting and often based on Edgar Wallace stories (the DVD release of Circus of Fear
actually claims that it was based on a Wallace novel; it wasn't) - which was quite popular at the time. Set in a stylised fog-wreathed London - usually looking like Victorian London, but with modern fashions and motor cars - and owing as much to Doctor Mabuse as they did to Wallace, most genuine German 'Krimi' films were shot, expressionistically, in black and white. Circus of Fear
, by contrast, is in garish colour and features location shooting on very real London locations. That said, as directed by John Moxey, (who, as John Llewelyn Moxey, later became a successful director of TV episodes in the US), Circus of Fear
is a well paced crime thriller, featuring a well-staged security van robbery on Tower Bridge, a car chase involving a Commer van and a couple of old Wolseley police cars and some knife-throwing murders.
It's undoubtedly a film of two halves, with the first section involving the robbery, a falling out amongst the gang and establishing the shadowy presence of an unseen 'Mr Big' behind it all who is somehow involved with the circus. The second part is a more conventional 'whodunnit' as stoic Scotland Yard inspector Leo Genn tries to ascertain the identity of 'Mr Big' and investigates a series of murders at the circus (which is at its out-of-season base near Windsor, (the film was shot at a post-Hammer Bray Studios, possibly one of the first non-Hammer productions to utilise the facilities following the gothic horror outfit's departure in 1966). Moxey makes good use of the bizarre circus background and Welbeck's script provides a plethora of suspects and sub-plots, (including Skip Martin's blackmailing dwarf clown, Lee's escaped convict, the jealous knife thrower and shifty ringmaster). Essentially a B-movie, Circus of Fear
is nonetheless an entertaining crime thriller, made at a time when Harry Allan Towers' productions seemed to have more money and production values lavished on them than in later years. Sure, not all of the plotting makes sense, there's too much padding in the form of the sub-plots, it wastes its main star and the final reveal of the villain is somewhat perfunctory, but Circus of Fear
remains highly watchable, full of fascinating incidental detail and performances and suffused with an air of understated madness. I'm very glad I was able to watch it again.
Labels: Forgotten Films