“Man on a Tightrope” – Elia Kazan (1953)

I went back to the well last night, and wound up paying the price for it. After reading some positive things about Elia Kazan’s Man on a Tightrope, and checking out its anti-Kazan-y cast—Frederic March, Gloria Grahame, Alexander d’Arcy, who it kills me just to look at, and a needle-thin Richard Boone (as opposed to Eli Wallach’s Method-ist eye-rolling or Karl Malden sticking his alky’s schnozz at the camera)—I decided to give it a shot.

Ah, well, this movie-watching stuff, it’s a tricky business.

March plays the harried manager of a broken-down circus that’s roaming the countryside in Communist Czechoslovakia, and in an Elia Kazan movie that alone should set off the air-raid sirens. The rudderless story shifts this way and that until March, out of the blue, announces his plan to lead the troupe on a “desperate, daring” (read: “suicidal, couldn’t possibly succeed outside of a movie”) escape over the border—“to Freedom.” Sigh…There are complications, of course: the weasely apparatchiks led by real-life Red-baiter Adolphe Menjou keep yanking March’s permit and otherwise fucking with him, his wife is making whoopee with the lion-tamer (a new low, even for Gloria), and his daughter is falling in love with a mysterious young worker who might be a police spy. The actual escape takes up only the final few minutes of the movie, but the build-up to it lasts a full half hour, which is an awfully long time for people in clown makeup to keep yelling “Let’s get ’em rolling!” with any kind of enthusiasm, or to watch a caravan of jalopies crawling down a hill at, literally, an elephant’s pace. But the movie is filled with “Did they really mean that?” touches, including the characters’ names (Grahame’s “Zama,” Boone’s “Krofta”) and Grahame’s antic-filled friendship with a gravel-voiced midget. (When she puts her perfume on him, he kicks his little legs and giggles.)

That brilliant (seriously), moving (seriously)  Do Snitch screed called On the Waterfront, which Kazan would make a year later, looks like The Communist Manifesto next to this thing, with its murderous officials who are forever demanding identity cards, perverting the ringhands’ conception of the working class, and duping the clowns into signing up for ObamaCare. We’re told that March is “only” the circus’ manager now because the libtards nationalized it away from him some years back, and the Workers’ Revolution is cited as the reason why the show’s trucks keep breaking down in their tracks. It’s odd, though, that a film so mentally married to the working stiff is so little concerned with what it takes to, say, actually operate a circus; instead we’re given the usual views of the lion-tamer cracking his whip and clowns cavorting with seltzer bottles. Man on a Tightrope is one of those broad, vulgar portraits of totalitarianism that Billy Wilder coughed up like a chunk of gristle every few years, and it feels not so subtly aimed at a couple of hundred of Kazan’s personal, and presumably former, friends. But it’s no less one-sided a picture of society than the worst Soviet propaganda ever painted of the West, with a world so gray and wanting it’s as if the sun itself refused to shine on Communist Czechoslovokia. How the man who created such a frothing, empty work could find his way to Wild River, where he managed to stretch the giving, at-ease manner of Brando and Saint’s swing-set conversation to full feature length, is a mystery, but not one that I feel obliged to investigate. It’s enough to know that, for one movie anyway, Kazan the artist was able to make his way to freedom.

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