Trapeze is a fairly simplistic film. In fact, its plotline can be summed up in two sentences: Tony Curtis travels from Brooklyn to Paris with the aim of becoming the seventh man in the history of the circus to perform the triple somersault on the flying trapeze. He hooks up with Burt Lancaster, a man who injured his leg attempting the said triple, and it looks as though his dream may come true until Gina Lollobrigida joins the act, creating complications for the men.
It is this simplicity, however, that makes Trapeze a refreshing change from many of the circus films of the day. The likes of The Big Circus, The Magnificent Showman and, especially, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth all struggled with numerous cast members, numerous plot strands and, most damagingly, excessive lengths. Thankfully, where Trapeze limits itself to just three star turns it manages to keep with the running time to a little over half and hour and, moreover, is allowed to concentrate its efforts solely on its main story.
This isn’t to say it’s a great film though. Despite some fine performances from the three leads (Lancaster in particular allowing to put his previous training as an acrobat into practice, something he only occasionally brought to the screen with such swashbucklers as The Crimson Pirate), the writing is often hackneyed and the central love triangle suffers from some by-numbers development. Indeed once the romantic element comes into play, it is easy to predict exactly where the film is going, and as a result little tension exists.
Fortunately, this problem arises only during the film’s latter half, until then Trapeze concentrates solely on the burgeoning father-son relationship of two male leads. Their initial meeting, when Curtis attempts to impress Lancaster with an acrobatic display on the Parisian streets, neatly contrasts the naivety of Curtis and Lancaster’s drunken cynicism (a welcome character trait when contrasted with the actor’s better known roles at the time, Jim Thorpe - All American indeed!). Intriguingly, the pairing also serves as a forerunner to the similar father-son bond they portrayed in Alexander Mackendrick’s wonderful Sweet Smell of Success. Whilst that film, of course, had a far more of a bitter edge to it (and is much the better film), it’s interesting to consider that their casting may have resulted from the believable relationship they create here.
The finest elements of Trapeze, however, lie with director Carol Reed. Throughout his career, especially with such works as Bank Holiday and A Kid for Two Farthings (made the previous year), Reed has always shown a keen eye for a social milieu. Indeed, this film clearly apes Farthings’ stylised recreation of Petticoat Lane with its portrayal of circus life; Reed conspires to include as much life as possible within the CinemaScope frame, never making Trapeze seem like the chamber piece that it really is.
Of course, as anyone who has seen The Third Man or Odd Man Out will be aware, Reed also has a fine sense of the visual side of cinema. Despite marking his leap into international filmmaking (the cast includes New Yorker Curtis, Italian Lollobrigida in her first English speaking role and even a pre-Carry On Sid James feature among a multitude of nationalities) which resulted in some of the poorer examples in his filmography (Oliver!, The Agony and the Ecstasy), Reed still infuses Trapeze with some wonderful images. As well as the keen eye for circus life, the director allows the numerous scenes on the trapeze to be truly breathtaking. Admittedly let down a little by some awkward looking back projection (Lancaster kissing Lollobrigida whilst swinging high above the ground), a number of carefully chosen angles allow the viewer to genuinely feel the thrill of the athletics on display. Moreover, Lancaster provides many of his own stunts, adding a realism which becomes vital considering how integral this action is to the overall drama.
Plus, without given anything away, Reed also allows for a strangely muted, though not quite downbeat ending; one that almost makes up for the soap operatics that precede it.
Picture and Sound
As any who happened to see Vertigo before its mid-nineties restoration will be aware, many of the films of that era suffer from a heavily apparent fading (remember Kim Novak’s skin being the same colour as her hair?). Highly evident in this case, the picture also suffers from numerous scratches and dirt. Sadly, the film will probably never be considered important enough to justify a face-lift, though at least the viewer is getting an anamorphic transfer in the original 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio.
The sound is presented in the original mono (through spread over the two front speakers), and unlike the picture, suffers little. Indeed, the constant musical backing for the numerous circus scenes comes off extremely well.
Only the theatrical trailer is present, though this is hardly surprising as the disc is an MGM back catalogue title. It’s vaguely interesting as a time capsule, emphasising the romance and daring aspects: “Trapeze: The Wonder Show of the World!”
An interesting film, due largely to its cast and the skill of its director. It’s a shame that MGM have deemed fit to release it with such a poor transfer - I’m sure Trapeze would prove to be nothing short of a revelatory if treated with care.