Today: February 22, 2024

Trapeze

If you want an example of how they shot big spectacle movies in the days before they largely became the domain of techno-nerds in post-production, Trapeze is a fair example.

If you
want an example of how they shot big spectacle movies in the days before they largely
became the domain of techno-nerds in post-production, Trapeze is a fair
example.
This big top melodrama did have
Cinemascope to call upon in its armoury of tools, but the emphasis had to be on
clever camera angles, as well as intelligent cutting. And, as has always been the
case, the trick was not permitting the visual high jinks to swamp character and
narrative. Unfortunately, they didn’t succeed.

Trapeze was directed by Carol Reed, and in a year when we are
celebrating all things Alfred Hitchcock
– the Dickens, or Shakespeare if you prefer, of British film – it’s worth
raising a glass to Reed, as well as Michael Powell, David Lean, The Boulting
Brothers
, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, those other Golden Age directorial heroes who
would have been worth a mention as cinematic contributors to the cultural
Olympiad.

Yet Reed, unlike Hitchcock, is also an
example of one of many great homebred talents who didn’t manage to cut it when
they went to ply their skills across the Atlantic. As the budgets got bigger,
Reed, sadly, got worse. Trapeze might be a metaphor for a man whose reputation
had been based on The Fallen Idol, Odd
Man Out
and The Third Man, small
but beautiful movies shaped around character, who suddenly found himself
pitched onto a very high swing with no safety net.

Still Trapeze is not a rotten tomato. Even
Reed at his most ordinary, could produce uncanny effects, especially when working,
as here, with his favourite cinematographer Robert Krasker. In one scene, Gina
Lollobrigida
circles and swings on a rope before Burt Lancaster as if floating freely through mid-air, a small but
perfect encapsulation of a great
cinema director’s ability to create mood changes out of seemingly nowhere. The
shots of the trapeze act are not only predictably spectacular, but also atmospheric
in the way the sounds of the cheering crowd below fade eerily for the
performers high up in the roof-top. There are pleasing details of back-stage
circus life, and Reed’s trademark canted framings are often in evidence, as is
his painterly eye for a street scene.

It’s not enough, though, to atone for a
story with all the substance of papier mache. Burt Lancaster turns in a
customarily reliable performance as a crippled and embittered ex- trapeze star-
even his limp seems like a symbol of his anger and frustration- and Tony Curtis is an adequate second lead.

But what of Gina Lollobrigida – or La
Lollo, as she was known to audiences at the time? Her casting speaks of a Hollywood
fascination in the 1950s and 1960s for continental exotics, of which Sophia Loren as the ultimate and most
successful embodiment. La Lollo, her nearest rival, is something of a curiosity
now, she of the high cheekbones and flared nostrils. Even her curves had curves,
and combined with that accent, it was enough to launch a thousand male
fantasies. Today she just seems like lousy piece of casting – but still nice to
look at. Trapeze, in fact, was a big box-office success in its day and remains
good, undemanding entertainment for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

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