Made after A Kid for Two Farthings (1955), Trapeze had director Carol Reed functioning more like a hired gun to direct a fairly simple adaptation of Max Catto's novel, albeit glossed up with an enormous circus location in France, and a huge cast of decorative acrobats and circus personnel (not to mention lions, elephants, and a giraffe, oh my).
The romantic triangle between an aging, bruised former “flyer” (Burt Lancaster), a scheming bitch (Gina Lollobrigida), and the young pup (Tony Curtis) clearly marked for great success is painfully clichéd, but the circus backdrop provided an ideal venue to show off the wide CinemaScope process. Director Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker managed to create a broad visual look that uses the big ‘scope rectangle to follow the long, graceful movements of trapeze choreography in elegant and often uninterrupted takes.
The idea was to involve the viewer without creating nausea, and to show as much of the actors doing their own stunts; Curtis is usually seen at the head or tail end of a stunt as he's about to leap or land, whereas Lollobrigida seems to have braved a few more high wire and low-level acrobatics. The real attraction is seeing Lancaster relive on film a bit of his own well-honed skills as a former acrobat, and like The Crimson Pirate (1952), he delivers the goods by swinging, climbing, and jumping, although he stays within the confines of his lame-legged character who knows his high-flying days are limited, and physical feats restricted to catching the star acrobat.
Trapeze, another Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production, was also a bit of Lancaster's swan song to his own high-flying stunts since Crimson Pirate. The actor would continue to perform some dynamic stunts in films like The Train (1964), but his raw physical power was no longer the leading element of his characters, excepting perhaps in The Swimmer (1968), an allegorical oddity in which the character revisits aspects of his past by journeying from pool to pool in his suburban hill community.
The lead trio of characters in Trapeze are familiar and predictable, with Lollobrigida, in one of her first leading English-speaking roles, coming off the worst: she's a cunning cliché who uses her hourglass figure and doublespeak to use and abuse men to ensure a stable career after years of poverty and performances in low-class circus venues. Curtis is a bit too old to play a green-eared, eager-beaver snot wanting to learn the triple maneuver that led to Lancaster's lame leg, but his involvement and undeniable chemistry with Lancaster led to the actors reappearing in one of the best works of their respective careers, the viciously caustic The Sweet Smell of Success (1957).
Fairing better among the time-worn archetypes are Katy Jurado as Lancaster's former flame, and Thomas Gomez (almost unrecognizable in costume and facial hair) as the greedy circus owner, and a man who once curried artistic talent and now opts for crowd pleasing antics to keep the cash flowing. Johnny Puleo's dwarfism is badly exploited in lame comedic vignettes where his character reiterates with certainty that he's gained a half-inch of height; and Sid James, in the film's weirdest moments, keeps wandering through scenes fondling his big snake.
It's a mix of kitsch, clichés, stunts, and ‘scope, which probably save Trapeze from aging outright into a plodding soap opera. Director Reed and the film's producers kept the pacing brisk, and Krasker's cinematography still stands as a fine example of applying the daunting CinemaScope lenses to active stunts, and filling every frame with all kinds of busy fluttering.
No shot is dull or clumsy, and in spite of some peripheral bending, as when a wide lens is used to squeeze Gomez' tiny office into one shot, Krasker's attempts to create deep focus imagery also gives the film a near-3-D quality; unlike Gorilla at Large (1954), a 3-D circus clunker, had Trapeze exploited the gimmicky process, the fast-changing focal points between objects and trapeze acrobats would've created a memorable 3-D experience.
Unlike most of Lancaster 's films, as of this writing, Trapeze has yet to enjoy a Region 1 release on DVD, but it is available in Europe. The German release includes English and German dub tracks, and although the picture is quite crisp, the film needs a proper restoration. Colour temperatures vary in shots, Lollobrigida's makeup often wavers between wan flesh tones and asphyxia-blue, and the audio is a flat and harsh mono mix.
The old Columbia LP of Malcolm Arnold's score was equally pinched and dry, but it sported one of the funniest cover posters of the time: an embellishment of the actual slo-mo kiss Lancaster plants on Lollobrigida during the film's swing-flinging pinnacle of romantic kitschery.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan