Sunday, 29 May 2011

King Kong (1976)

Whilst Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of the classic Merian C. Cooper-Ernest B. Schoedsack film of 1933 had some major faults, it was certainly an improvement on the previous attempt to reinvent the original, this mid-‘70s stab by Dino De Laurentiis in the first phase of his attempt to conquer Hollywood with a string of (mostly terrible) monster and horror movies. Often bad, occasionally stirring, this De Laurentiis production was brought to life by John Guillerman, who had made some good films in Britain and some admirable work in his first years in Hollywood (The Blue Max, 1966; The Bridge at Remagen, 1969), but had well and truly been caught in the big-budget trash wringer by this stage. Like Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974), there’s something about this film, with its surprising tackiness for such an expensive movie, and the enervated, cynical, campy tone infusing much of the proceedings, that summarises the exhaustion and loathing of what was left of old-school Hollywood for both itself and the current zeitgeist. Instead of the melancholic beauty of the epigraph of the Cooper-Schoedsack film, here the film leaves off with a far more laboured, yet somehow effective touch of the massacred ape lying dead, journalists crawling all over it and surrounding traumatised heroine Dwan (Jessica Lange), as she screams out the name of her boyfriend Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), who can’t get to her for the crushing, appalling spectacle. It’s no wonder people ran to see the colour and lightness of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind the following year: this film had taken a baseball bat of sloppiness and negativity to the cranium of a story that had, in its first incarnation, been fast-paced, glibly poetic, and brilliantly corny.

Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jnr’s story transmogrified the original’s team of filmmakers into a more sociopolitically obvious emblem of exploitation: a team of venal prospectors for the oil company Petrox, led by the amusingly incompetent yet cluelessly self-assured executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) and his chief scientist Bagley (Rene Auberjonois. The team depart Indonesia for parts unknown on the Petrox Explorer, captained by Ross (John Randolph), in search of a lost island recently photographed by satellite and perpetually smothered under a fog bank. Jack, a hippie primate scientist, having heard legends about the island and guessing the team’s destination, sneaks on board and warns them that their dreams of gushing geysers of crude might not be fulfilled. Wilson, who’s thrown himself into the make-or-break venture with his ass on the line (rather senselessly; dud prospecting has got to be an expected risk for oil companies), pushes against all doubts and obstacles to reach the island. On the way, the team pick up the lone survivor of a yacht wrecked in a storm, Dwan, a Californian actress who was being taken by a lecher producer to make a movie in Hong Kong. The team reach the island, penetrate the fog bank, and encounter the natives with their giant wall and suggestive mating rituals involving tender young maidens and guys in ape masks. Soon, Dwan is kidnapped and sacrificed to Kong, Jack and crew members, including Carnahan (Ed Lauter) and Boan (Julius Harris) give chase, whilst Wilson, after Bagley confirms the island’s oil is worthless, decides to capture the giant ape as his prize instead, to use as a marketing gimmick.

Guillerman’s film retains some initially alluring lustre, if only because of the sense of scale some of the filmmaking offers, as he generates reasonable atmosphere in the first third, and the grandiose score by John Barry, whose lush, emotive work often stands in direct contrast to the limply mocking, pseudo-hip jive infusing the dialogue of many of the scenes it’s playing over. Richard H. Kline’s photography likewise possesses a firm, cool beauty throughout, especially in the location photography in Sri Lanka. Perhaps it’s too well-shot, as the surprising limitations of the much-hyped ‘70s special effects are too often, too clearly revealed. Infamously, Carlo Rambaldi’s huge mechanical Kong wouldn’t work properly, so that Rick Baker had to step in to recreate his work for Schlock (1972) on a far bigger scale, animating the monkey suit that tramps about some half-assed models like an escapee from a Toho kaigu eiga. The effects are woeful in places, particularly in the recreation of the original’s log-rolling scene, where the set, matte work, and ape suit all seem numbingly fake. It goes without saying that this version never comes close to recapturing the sheer ferocity and epic nobility of both Kong himself and his first movie. In comparison to the miraculous pace of the Cooper-Schoedsack film, this version lumbers along, taking an hour before Kong even appears, and in spite of the fact this version runs 30 minutes longer than the 1933 film, there’s about half as much incident once he does appear. Kong’s lone battle with an island monster is a desultory wrestle with a giant snake. If Jackson’s version was finally a little overloaded by his fanboyish delight in indulging and expanding the original’s universe, this version seems barely interested in anything except bad hipster jokes.

The worst aspect of this King Kong is that deeply crass self-congratulation. The attempts to present a more enlightened version of the original’s harum-scarum natives and thoughtless kidnapping of Kong from homeland, manifests in Jack’s conscientious statements, constantly telling Wilson off for his unadorned lack of conscience and awareness, and worrying that the natives of the island will be reduced to a bunch of drunks without their god that gave mystery and terror to their lives. Unfortunately, this is shown up as pure humbug as the natives are portrayed with less sympathy and nuance in their actual on-screen behaviour: there’s nothing like the ’33 film’s great bit where the sailors and natives band together to try and hold Kong off, and their desperate defence which makes it clear why they had to keep Kong sated. Cooper and Schoedsack’s film, with its screenplay co-written by Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose, was galvanised by its highly personal understanding and irony about the politics and demands of adventurous movie-making; this film is a series of cheap satirical jabs. Semple’s script manages to compile almost every cheesy quip that could be associated with Kong short of quoting the popular ‘60s button “King Kong has an Edifice Complex”, as Dwan shouts “male chauvinist ape” at the giant manhandling simian, mentions that her astrologist told her she would meet the “biggest man” in her life, and other such theoretically side-splitting gags. When Kong finally gets hold of Dwan, their subsequent “romance” is embarrassing, as Kong washes under a waterfall and then blow-drys her.

Lange was plucked from obscurity – I once chatted with a guy who had known her as a waitress before she got picked for the role – to play Dwan, making it a particularly fraught experience for a young actress who was catapulted to fame, and nearly sent straight back to nothingness. Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow was desperate and dominated, but never dopey, unlike Dwan. Lange plays Dwan with an edge of Monroe-esque kooky blitheness, rambling on about how not wanting to watch Deep Throat helped save her life, and characterised as a kind of innocent nature-child – or airhead, depending on your point of view – whose relationship with Jack, who’s uncertain he can make her happy, seems to never catch a break, and finds herself rather more awed by her other suitor’s surprisingly delicate way with finger and mouth. Lange is filmed in a ludicrous shipboard montage striking cute poses, including in the shower, and later swans about in cut-offs, posing for Jack’s camera on the beach of Kong Island and skipping about in front of waterfalls, as if this had suddenly turned into a John Derek movie. If the idea was to make a film much more ironic about the crypto-sexist underpinning of the original’s image of a woman at the mercy of monstrous masculine strength, the choice of making Dwan a ditz was not wise. From a modern perspective, there’s some cognitive dissonance in being invited to ogle Lange as cheesecake: this is, after all, Jessica Lange, multiple Oscar-winning actress, jumping about in short shorts. It’s a testimony to how good her performance is that a lot of people thought at the time she was really this was dumb.

That said, Lange’s playing of guileless purity does finally gain traction in the film’s later stages, as her growing affection for her simian suitor results in her becoming increasingly anguished in seeing him victimised. Similarly, Bridges’ committed performance manages to make something substantial out of his placard of a character, finding nuance in Jack’s uncertainty about committing to a relationship with a girl from outside his world, and real passion in his final emotional witnessing of Kong’s last stand, which almost manages on its own to make the finish truly tragic. The last act of this King Kong does come surprisingly close to saving this often turgid spectacle, and in spite of the sacrilegious relocating of Kong’s last battle to the World Trade Centre, which now, inevitably stokes some tragic associations of its own. This final worthiness is thanks largely to how the film embraces, with tinny obviousness but some genuine punch, the spectacle of Kong trapped in the embrace of a commercialism, opportunism, media vultures, and, finally, military cruelty. He’s trundled out before the audience of gawking New Yorkers sheathed in a huge petrol pump, which, when lifted away, finds him in a body cage with a crown perched awkwardly upon his head. Grodin’s Wilson is surprisingly funny, if in a fashion that feels wrong for the film, in his clueless arrogance, especially when he gets Jack to stop shooting camera-bait Dwan to come and take pictures of his own heroic landfall on Kong Island. His humour value reaches an apogee in the finale as he keeps trying to reassure the audience as Kong steadily tears himself lose of his bonds, and stomps Wilson flat into the earth. In spite of Jack’s getting assurances from a slimy city official (John Agar!) that Kong will not be harmed, nonetheless Kong’s harassment by flame-thrower-wielding National Guard and final butchery by helicopter gunships results.

The grotty spectacle of newsmen crawling over Kong’s carcass and Dwan being mobbed in the final moments compounds the film’s late, awkward but affecting stab at finally taking the story seriously: the epic nobility of the ‘30s version has been squashed under the heel of the ‘70s just like Wilson under Kong’s. But there’s still something awry about this: Cooper and Schoedsack’s King Kong hit mythic heights that this one can’t – and this is a problem that Jackson’s version encountered too – precisely because their Kong was both empathetically emotional and awesomely vicious, a pagan god mistakenly transposed into a world of neon and chrome, a figure of inimical strength encountering a world of equal but pettier strength, so that his death is at once necessary, sad, and glorious in a way. In Guillerman’s and Jackson’s versions, the stress is so much on his empathetic side that both films finish up as bummers rather than tragedies. Kong in this version would have been well justified in stomping New York into ruins. There’s still some visual majesty in some moments, particularly in the excellent sequence of Kong’s breaking though the wall only to plunge into Wilson’s pit filled with chloroform. The flashes of decency in this version don’t redeem it, but they do help make rather perversely watchable. This Kong was a major hit at the box office in spite of the poor reception, and Guillerman completed his career ruination by directing the flop sequel King Kong Lives (1986), a film I watched too many times as a kid. Bridges’ and Lange’s careers survived, of course.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Goonies (1985)

Beloved by everyone under the age of ten who saw it back in the day, The Goonies was one of a wave of successful efforts by Steven Spielberg to move into producing films revolving around a number of repeating motifs, as forces of anarchy and the lure of adventure disturb the frustrating slumber of small towns and give the young heroes some fun. The Goonies is not as dynamically weird as Joe Dante’s riff on those themes, Gremlins (1984), or as original and cunning as Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985), and skewed rather more obviously to a distinctly younger audience. But that audience, the kids of the ‘80s, lapped up the aggressively modern portrayal of them as good-hearted but foul-mouthed, cheeky swashbucklers driven to act out in rebellious ways only in service to a larger purpose; the raw energy of youth, painted as a social problem in films like Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge (1979), needed only appropriate channelling. The reassuring portrait of an outsider’s club that embraces with far more warmth that any insider could know similarly underpins the Harry Potter tales. Of course this film’s screenwriter, Chris Columbus, handled the first two Harry Potter films. The pity there is that Columbus’s contributions could have desperately used some of the vigour the actual director of The Goonies, Richard Donner, brought to the project. The Goonies, with its surprisingly formidable cast of teenage actors, some of whom went on to have solid, occasionally noteworthy careers (Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Martha Plimpton), others who wouldn’t (Corey Feldman, Keri Green, Jeff Cohen, Jonathan Ke Quan), is a twist on age-old material and impulses, as its heroes, the eponymous gang, set out to follow historical clues to locate a hidden treasure.

A key reason for the fondness with which I, and I suspect a lot of other ‘80s kids, remembered The Goonies was in its rich sense of atmosphere, always a vital Donner trait. Handling the usual well-crafted Spielberg production, in a fashion similar to how Donner constructed an effervescent nostalgic haze even in a contemporary setting with Superman (1978; Donner inserts a little self-tribute late in the film), here he paints with swift effect the small coastal town and the adventurous environs. The wintry, rainy landscape, stormy sea coast and forests, shadowy ruined abodes, glimpses of howling, monstrous misshapen men, are all wielded with aplomb, building to such magic-realist moments as that in which the gang happens upon an underground chamber into which generations of coins thrown by folk into the wishing well above have fallen, and the final shot of a ruined galleon riding the high seas. Like Back to the Future, it plays as a practical fetish for its era with the glimpse of Cyndi Lauper singing on TV and Brand’s fitness fanaticism. The Goonies are the gang led by the almost mystically distracted asthmatic Mikey Walsh (Astin), the bullshit artiste Mouth (Feldman), the inventive Data (Ke Quan), and the perpetually hungry Chunk (Cohen). The end of their town is apparently looming: through some unexplained loophole, the locality is up for grabs to smarmy real estate developer Elgin Perkins (Curtis Hanson – not the director), and Mikey’s father (Keith Walker), a local bigwig, doesn’t have the funds to prevent the buyout. In their frustrated distraction, the boys happen upon some local heirlooms, including a map in Spanish and a doubloon that proves a visual aid, in the attic of Walsh house. These supposedly provide a guide through the warren of booby-trapped tunnels dug by pirate king One-Eyed Willy, to the hiding place of his pirate ship and its treasure. Mikey’s inspiration and desperation drives the boys to overpower Mikey’s older brother Brand (Brolin), who’s been charged by their mother (Mary Ellen Trainor) to keep him inside because of his asthma, and venture off.

The adventure is complicated by the criminal Fratelli gang, with their ferocious ma (Anne Ramsay) and her sons, Jake (Robert Davi), Francis (Joe Pantoliano), and the disfigured, childlike Sloth (John Matuszak), seen initially chained to a chair in front of a television, watching old Errol Flynn movies, fed on scraps and roaring like a monster. The path into Willy's kingdom begins in the deserted restaurant that the Fratellis, murderous forgers, are using as a hideout, and so the Goonies have to slip past them. Brand has a run-in with Perkins’ son Troy (Steve Antin), a jerk with the advantage of a car, who’s driving about with the flighty but cute Andy Carmichael (Green) and her tart-tongued pal Stef (Plimpton); appalled by Troy’s behaviour, the girls team up with Brand in tracking down the kids but finish up having to flee along with them into the bowels of Willy’s diggings, contending with trapdoors, plunging boulders, and, most memorably, a huge organ made of bones that has to be played correctly to open a door, and if played wrong starts the floor crumbing away. The chief irony of The Goonies’ nostalgic appeal is that it is itself based in nostalgic appeal. There are literal references to the Hardy Boys and old swashbucklers – the score quotes Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s theme for The Adventures of Don Juan (1948) – and spiritual quotes from many more, most especially the Little Rascals and Our Gang in the Goonies themselves with their multi-ethnic fellowship defined by personality quirk rather than creed.

It can be sourly argued that by this time the efforts of the House of Spielberg had moved beyond the honest tributes mixed with real creativity which had made the Indiana Jones films and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) so good had been supplanted by hoary formula, and that’s true to a large extent, although the leaden exhaustion of that formula that would be apparent by Hook (1991) was not yet nascent. Most specifically, the tropes of Indiana Jones movies – the hunt for hidden treasure following old relics and contending with hostile traps – are cross-bred with the accurately lawless feel for energetic youth seen in ET, with a dash of John Hughes-style teen romantic interaction. But the drama has a primal underpinning. As its young heroes set out on an adventure with the hope of restoring the certainties of their childhood, represented by the threat to their homes and thus their community, they find themselves losing a grip on that childhood; girls are admitted to the boy’s club, sex rears its ugly head, death falls quite literally on them. The goal of the search happens to possess a double-entendre name synonymous with the penis, as the boys evolve into men. Even the puerile edge of Columbus’ script helps flesh this out: at the story’s start they’re desperately trying to glue back on the broken phallus on a statue in the pristine bourgeois environment of the mother’s well-run home, whilst Mikey’s father is revealed as socially castrated in his failure to keep the developers at bay. The day is finally saved by a man, Sloth, who seems the image of twisted, monstrous adulthood but who actually represents eternal childhood, but he inspires Chunk to rise to the task of parental responsibility.

The film has been criticised for not engaging its young female characters with the same keenness, but it’s worth noting the detail given about the yin-yang pairing of Stef and Andy in the course of the rush of events. Andy, a cheerleader is the designated hottie who is introduced with Troy constantly trying to perv on her, later dipping hysterically into worries about her body, then awkwardly trying to seduce Brand only to end up pashing Mikey instead in a transformative moment Donner shoots in a flurry of whirling water and depersonalising shadows. Stef, the designated tomboy, offers a more sarcastic attitude to avoid the same problems, but of course that’s a problem in itself: she eventually finds herself awkwardly paired with Mouth, whose scorn matches her own. The contrast of the functioning families seen throughout the film with the Fratellis is mostly comic, but it does possess some consequential depth: Ma, with her nakedly abusive attitude to her boys, caused Sloth’s disfigurement and retardation by dropping him repeatedly, and the contempt his brothers hold him in sees Sloth readily side with the kids rather than his evil family. Ramsay is ferocious, and Davi in particular is good as Jake, with his fondness for singing opera arias that drive others crazy and compounding his villainy (although Davi sings rather well).

Donner’s direction is perfectly pitched for this sort of thing, and there are moments that nag the memory with their visual and emotional concision: Mouth’s angry declamation about claiming back the penny he tossed into the wishing well because of all his dashed dreams; Troy screaming “Andy, you Goonie!” in rage at her abandoning his crass grasping for the new fellowship; the gang’s first glimpse of the pirate ship; Mikey’s kooky identification with One-Eyed Willy, his moments of reverie and psychic war with the long-dead yet still-effectual pirate given a spacey edge by David Grusin’s music; and, of course, Sloth’s much-quoted cry of “Hey you guys!” when leaping into action. Grusin’s score is terrific in general. The rather more trying, excessive elements of the film do however severely hurt The Goonies. Columbus’s script is irritating in its patronising and pummelling use of Chunk as a motor-mouthed, lard-clad foil. He fails badly as comic relief, instead becoming irritating very quickly, and the film becomes considerably more tolerable once he’s separated from the main gang. He does get one amusing scene with a nasty edge, in which Ma threatens to jam Chunk’s hand in a blender to make him talk, and he releases an interminable stream of every petty wrong he’s committed in his life.

But the sheer incessant noisiness of the film, whilst compelling for a kid, is hard to take as an adult. The nastiness of the Fratellis is so overstated early on that the kids come across as amazingly dense to keep crossing them, and there’s a certain obnoxious glibness to touches, like Chunk getting stuck and nearly forgotten in a freezer with a cadaver, recur throughout, as if Columbus was just a little too comfortable with suspending the rules of his drama and character relationships, as well as emotional contiguity, for cheap laughs. Gimmicky, rather too cartoonish elements bob up throughout, especially in Data’s gadgets, which sap the filmmaking and derring-do of credibility. It’s hard as a film buff not to smile at the sound effects quotes from Looney Tunes and The Three Stooges, but it’s also sadly predictive of how Columbus would crank those elements up to 11 in the obnoxious Home Alone movies. The anxieties of the characters, and the catharsis of the finale, like Data’s relationship with his father, seem a bit laboured and syrupy because they weren’t set up with enough care in the first place.

Donner’s attempts to invest the project with real soul only stretch so far; unlike the pop cultural detritus it quotes, The Goonies is too self-satisfied and bludgeoning in its constant rush to get to the good stuff. But the film is canny enough to know that there’s a good reason to recapitulate old stories; there’s always a new generation waiting for the first kiss, the first thrill of real danger, the first sensation of adult responsibility, and ready to understand that appearances aren’t always truth. In its best moments The Goonies genuinely captures the spirit of being a kid and believing anything is possible, and it's still a highly entertaining ride.

Bunco Squad (1950)

Pity the poor old B-movie without even a major cult director or star attached. Pity even more the B-movie that, after every other branch of the brave men and women of the police forces has been ransacked for story material, is left celebrating the brave men and women of the division taking on two-bit grifters fiddling with crystal balls and turban-wearing flim-flam artists. Yet Bunco Squad, directed by Herbert Leeds, is, in its own way, an exemplary B-movie: just over an hour long, it possesses a streak of wry humour and a restrained energy. The best-known face in the film is Ricardo Cortez, having slipped a long way down the ladder since The Sorrows of Satan (1926), but still bringing a dark charisma and compact aggression to his role as Tony Weldon, a brilliant impresario of scams who puts together a team of faux psychics for the purpose of extracting the fortune of one Jessica Royce (Elisabeth Risdon), whom he meets on a train, and pretends to romance her secretary Barbara Madison (Marguerite Churchill). Weldon’s gang create the shonky “Rama Institute”, home to “Princess Lianne” (Bernadene Hayes), a brassy broad who can play the kooky mystic effectively enough, thanks to Weldon’s thorough research and special effects trickery, to rope Mrs Royce, who is still mourning her heroic son who died on D-Day. Fortunately for her and good-hearted gullible folk everywhere, Detectives Steve Johnson (Robert Sterling) and Mack McManus (Douglas Fowley) of the Bunco Squad are on the case. When they hear Weldon is in town, they immediately do the rounds to ruffle the feathers of all the hacks in town, and when Weldon hires several of them, the detectives easily recognise the scam, but have a hard time proving it before Mrs Royce gets fleeced and the bad guys flee.

It’s a wonder Bunco Squad was never adapted into a TV show, because the set-up is perfect. There’s the inspired touch of giving Sterling a young ingénue actress for a girlfriend, Grace Bradshaw (Joan Dixon), who’s toiling away in minor movie roles, and the film gets almost meta in the repeating joke of scenes that seem at first to be part of the narrative but are then revealed to be on set, and, as a final blackout gag, a fake wedding scene segueing into a real lover’s kiss which the director calls “cut” for. In between, as Grace gets frustrated with her boyfriend continually jilting her for business, Johnson gets the brainwave to use her talents, and gets a magician who advises the police on the techniques of fake mediums (Dante the Magician) to teach her to become a convincing mystic, cueing her amusing transformation into a veiled mystic who wields exactly the same tricks as Lianne. The good guys hope through this to steer the all-too-credulous Mrs Royce away from leaving the Rama Institute a fat chunk of change in her will. But the bunco business isn’t all just funny clothes and spooky voices, as the brake lines on Johnson’s car are severed, sending him careening through traffic and ending in a crash that proves only lightly injurious, and later, when he realises that Barbara knows too much, Weldon sees to her death in another car crash. Soon Grace’s deception forces Weldon’s hand, and a breathless finale ensues.

The narrative territory is somewhat akin to that explored by Dashiell Hammett in his The Dain Curse and short stories (although it’s actually based on Reginald Taviner’s novel “Fortuneer”), delighted by its own cynicism in exposing the machinations of manipulative exploiters of grief. The film even equates these with psychologists, represented by one “Dr. Largo”, aka Mike Finlayson (Frank Wilcox), who Mrs Royce was seeing before being snared by the Rama gang, another grifter who had moved into a classier racket and who Weldon’s gang bullies into recommending them to his most special client. The way in which the film is conscious of role-playing on multiple levels, is perhaps its most interesting aspect; that, and the way Johnson and Grace, negotiating an awkward romance where their exclusive priorities find an unexpected way to meet and mesh in the course of the case. Leeds, who had B-movie experience going back to Charlie Chan and Mr Moto, directs in a relentlessly straightforward fashion, decorated by some snappy, impressionistic edits in Johnson’s car-rash, and the well-orchestrated portrayals of the scam mechanics, confirm the depth of the influence of Fritz Lang’s Spione (1921) and Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) on this sort of fare. But the film’s most likeable aspect is the ways the knowing characters maintain their different facades, mystic jive, showbiz jargon, and streetwise patter all commenting neatly upon each other. There’s also a funny scene late in the film when one of the baddies tries to strong-arm Grace, only for Johnson and Dante, clad in black clothing for imitating otherworldly spirits in the séances, take him on, the tough guy whirling about unable to see the guys pummelling him, as if he really is being beaten up by protecting spirits. The film’s light and fast-paced tone precludes any serious engagement with the interesting elements that bob up throughout – the social fall-out of the war, the differing layers of role-playing deception, the gap between the faithful and the sucker – but then again that's just another way in which Bunco Squad utterly fulfills its purpose.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Circus of Fear (1966)

aka Psycho-Circus

Circus of Fear, in large part a regulation and stereotyped mixture of whodunit cliches and the familiar tricks of Edgar Wallace, author of the source novel, is nonetheless distinguished by a good cast, an indelible '60s B-movie atmosphere, and the intermittently stylish direction of John Moxey, the interesting director of City of the Dead (1960) who later settled into a career of mostly TV work, making the first The Night Stalker (1971) telemovie. The film commences with a snappy heist sequence that is a classic of its kind, as a gang of criminals, including the seedy and fanatical-looking Klaus Kinski as Manfred, stage a daring robbery of an armoured van, using the Tower Bridge as a device in their plan. They ambush the vehicle and strip it of its cash load, running the bags down a wire onto a waiting launch from the bridge deck. One of the criminals, Mason (Victor Maddern), is the inside man, having gotten a job as one the van’s crew, and when his fellow driver tries to make a getaway, Mason shoots him. The gang successfully elude pursuit on the Thames, and Mason, a hot potato, rather than travel with the other members, is ordered to head north and hand over the lion’s share of the loot to the planner of the robbery. Most of the gang is caught when an anonymous tip-off sends the cops after the van they ride in: only Manfred and Mason are left free, and Mason, after ditching his hire-car, is killed by an unseen knife-hurling assailant at the rendezvous place.

These opening scenes are a class apart from the rest of the film, worthy of Peter Yates or Robert Hamer, who used the same locations in his Brit-noir classic The Long Memory (1952). Moxey employs the locations, including the always-emblematic Tower Bridge but also the then-dilapidated, run-down Shad Thames area, and, later, in Mason’s flight across the country and dumping his car, glimpses of a cheerless countryside that contextualises his drama in a waned industrial England. The crackle of verisimilitude puts the then-recent Great Train Robbery in mind, and Johnny Douglas’s plaintive jazz score infuses the sodden, chilly, overgrown landscape behind much of the action with a melancholic vibrancy. After this Circus of Fear settles into a killer-on-the-lurk thriller, but the tension between the realism of Moxey’s style and the hoary thriller plot and formulaic fishing for red herrings is part of its appeal. The dowdiness of the environs contrasts the gaudy appeal of the circus setting, and even that is quickly undermined as the circus returns to its winter quarters to await the Christmas season, and its bored denizens pass the time with murder, blackmail, and infidelity. Determinedly low-key police detective Elliott (Leo Genn), in spite of being harried by his demanding boss (Cecil Parker) for a quick result in the case, investigates with dogged calm, trailing fragments of information into the English hinterland and finding not only Mason’s rotting body, but the conglomerate folk working for Barberini’s Circus, a perfect harbour for transients and strangers of all kinds.

An obvious candidate for villainy is the perpetually masked lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee), who conceals scars from a mauling in the ring; he possesses the suitcase Mason had brought the money in, hidden under the cage of one of his feline performers. Ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache) suspects Gregor might actually be Otto, father of Natasha (Suzy Kendall) who is training as a lion tamer herself, a wanted prison escapee who killed Carl’s father in a fight. Carl took a job with the circus specifically hoping Otto would come pay a visit to his daughter. But whether or not Gregor’s the mastermind of the robbery soon proves moot as further murders occur, including that of the philandering Gina (Margaret Lee), partner of madly jealous knife-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann), making Elliott suspect that the mastermind hasn’t yet found his lucre. Manfred lurks menacingly, and the killer can only be identified by his trademarked throwing knives. Meanwhile Gregor is being blackmailed by Mr Big (Skip Martin), a circus dwarf who is nonetheless an accomplished bully and lecher. As it turns out, Gregor really is Otto, but when he’s caught out and forced to flee the circus, he ironically argues to Carl that the killing of his father was accidental convincingly enough so that Carl lets him flee. But the mysterious killer causes Otto to fall to his death over a cliff, memorably wreathed in a shower of pound notes falling from his broken suitcase.

This is the sort of film I like not so much for what it’s about, as for the quality the filmmaking exudes, succinctly moody and enjoyably modest. Casting Lee more for his voice, trying on a plummy Germanic accent as his eyes blaze out through the holes in his mask for much of the film, than for his familiarly haughty good looks, was an original touch. Wallace’s works were incessantly popular particularly for German filmmakers in the ‘60s, and in keeping with that appeal, this film was a British-West German co-production, offering up rising Euro-stars Kinski and the two Lees (who weren’t related) amongst others well-known in continental cinema. The cast is surprisingly splendid and eye-catching for fans of the era’s genre faces. Martin makes nearly as memorable a contribution here as he did in Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964). Circus of Fear was produced and written (under his usual pseudonym of Peter Welbeck) by nefarious cinema entrepreneur Harry Alan Towers, who was concurrently producing Christopher Lee’s series of Fu Manchu movies for Hammer, and both Kinski and Margaret Lee would later star in the Towers production of Jesus Franco’s Venus in Furs (1969). Like Towers’ version of Ten Little Indians from the year before, Circus of Fear is suggestive of the developing giallo style of crime film, and young co-star Kendall would go on to star in Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).

But Circus of Fear is very different from the lush perversity of the continental style, emphasising the humdrum in the innately colourful circus setting, amidst the generally unforgiving English landscape in winter; there’s no doubt about the season as the actors’ breath fogs in many scenes, Moxey’s eye casually describing the withered-looking elephants and other animals of the circus with revealing documentary plainness, all the gilt stripped off the circus fantasy world just as he elsewhere casually reveals a world that seems to be decaying. The film shares not just the setting but the theme of the masked escapee hiding amidst the circus folk with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1953), to which this plays as the deglamourised riposte. A recurring theme of inheritors dealing with the sins and failures of their fathers calls to mind City of the Dead; just as Natasha and Carl are struggling with poisoned legacies, so too it emerges that the mastermind is likewise driven on by paternal loss, so that his motives, as proven when he kills Otto, is finally less about money than enjoying toying about with people like fate incarnate. In a nice twist, what seems to the film’s designated comic relief character, Eddie (Eddi Arent), the circus accountant repeatedly seen desperately trying to impress his fellows with circus tricks so as to be allowed to perform, is actually the killer. He is soon hoist by his own petard as Mario’s knife-throwing skills, which he mocked, proves in the heat of the moment quite good enough to take him out. No classic, but modish good fun.