Trapeze November 3, 2020
1 Hr., 49 Mins.
t least as a romantic melodrama, Trapeze (1956) is rather unconvincing. Its three leads, played by Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and Gina Lollobrigida, are stuck in a love triangle. While there’s some chemistry between Lancaster and Lollobrigida, there isn’t enough heat between Curtis and Lollobrigida to give very much emotionally involving who-will-she-choose tension to the proceedings. And when
the meant-to-be-cheer-inducing last shot in the movie arrives, we might think that even though Lancaster and Lollobrigida have some chemistry, they don’t quite have enough of it to totally sell a gesture like that one.
But is anyone turning to Trapeze, which is set inside the hermetic world of American circus performers in Paris (the parties in the romantic triangle are all acrobats), looking for a particularly good romance? In a movie like this, the thrill of a romance is almost expected to be a garnish — a pleasant surprise if it functions as something a little more than that. When someone is ordering Trapeze, what’s of interest is the promise of breathtaking acrobatic stunts, made more artful because visually they have been given a nice-to-look-at big-budget studio treatment.
The movie, directed with the right amount of flash by Carol Reed (1949’s The Third Man), delivers well on both things. The stunts are pretty seamlessly mounted — they easily recreate the uncanny mixture of dazzlement and fear one might feel while watching a Cirque du Soleil show. And the film has been photographed in hotly colorful CinemaScope, made a smidge grimier by the blood-, sweat-, and tears-doused environs, by Robert Krasker. Even if the romantic interludes that give the aerial sequences some extra punchiness don’t invigorate much, the primary leads are all individually good. They’re given memorable support from Katy Jurado (as an enervated former flame of Lancaster’s who appears to still love him) and Thomas Gomez (as the fat-cat, mustachioed circus promoter who is unsurprisingly more willing to bet on marketability than art). Trapeze isn’t high art, but it’s delectably escapist.
At the beginning of the film, a young gymnast from New York, Tino (Curtis), flies to Paris. Bold and brash, he’s come to the City of Light specifically to meet Mike (Lancaster), a famed aerialist. Tito thinks Mike can train him to pull off a triple somersault — a midair feat so chancy to execute that only six men, Mike included, have completed it successfully. Mike, hard-drinking and cynical (he’s a classically jaundiced veteran performer), is wary about this: the permanent limp that now defines his gait comes from a triple-somersault-related injury. Predictably, Mike relents after some deliberation, egged on by an ex-lover (Jurado) who performs in the same show and is now married to one of their French colleagues. A close affinity soon develops — the relationship becomes almost fraternal. Mike will not just train Tino but become his partner, emerging from his self-imposed retirement to give the circus a new act.
Their specialty — they’re a duo very good at doing doubles rather than triples way high up in the air — is forestalled by Lola (Lollobrigida), a voluptuous, multi-talented co-worker with an irrepressible ambition to make her way up to the tip of the big top. She sees what Mike and Tino are doing and wants a part of it. Doesn’t matter that she hasn’t done their kind of trapeze-work before. She figures that if she joins in, it'd be not a mere professional step but a stride — she'll work hard to get where she needs to be. “I would rather be a tiny part of a great act than a big part of a tiny act,” she declares. Lola ingratiates herself easily — the circus manager thinks she’d help sell more tickets, and so he basically demands the twosome rejigger their plans. With the ingratiation comes an attempt, on Lola's part, to come on to both Mike and Tino. One cannot be sure of the ratio, for both men, of genuine versus performative affection; Mike is immediately suspicious. “You really fly high,” he warily observes when Lola makes the first move. But then he gives in.
Lola has clearly been created in Trapeze to stand in the shoes of the serpentine femme-fatale archetype — use these men to get a toned, pantyhosed leg up. But the script, by James R. Webb with uncredited assistance from Ben Hecht and Wolf Mankowitz, never fully commits to Lola being a villain, and Lollobrigida hardly seems to relish in her character’s manipulations, either. So she becomes something of a quandary for the film, which is reliant on simplistic typifications. Who is she supposed to be? It’s an equivocation that works as an interesting contrast from the Mike and Tino characters, who uncomplicatedly — which is also to say rather superficially — are the pessimist brought out of his misery when he’s making his art and the overeager young thing who will by the end of the movie be hardened, respectively. (Lancaster and Curtis would in many ways recapitulate their Trapeze dynamic a year later in the acerbic film noir Sweet Smell of Success.)
It isn't that big a deal that the film's characterizations are facile — they're effective enough for a movie whose main interest was always going to be its stuntwork. That stuntwork doesn’t disappoint. When the aerial sequences flare up, they’re mostly silent; relief only comes in spurts — nanoseconds, really — when one of the performers temporarily reperches on a ladder, preparing for their next flip. Much is shot overhead, which makes everything happening feel like a carefully drawn blueprint being animated before our eyes. What’s going to happen if everything doesn’t go according to plan? The melodrama of Trapeze is perfunctory, but its big-top action is spectacular. We hold our breath the way we would watching something similar happen from plastic seats, hoping we won’t bear witness to an accident sure to make the front page the next day. When he was younger, Lancaster was himself a circus acrobat; he performed the bulk of the movie’s stunts, strengthening the feature’s persuasiveness.
Movies built on the promise of spectacle like Trapeze tend to not work holistically because their drama can’t properly live up to the exciting pageantry
audiences are paying for. I'm thinking particularly in this case of the vehicles of Esther Williams, the “swimming” movie star whose films have mostly become forgotten relics because cinematically they were spiritless when Williams wasn’t doing something insane in the water. She built a career on a filmography almost totally comprising movies with this problem. It’s true that the drama in Trapeze isn’t quite as exciting to watch as the big-top spectacle it offers, but
the difference is that the drama is sufficient rather than uninvolving. And everything is handsomely presented by a director who, while not necessarily in his element (Reed mostly made lugubrious films noir), can make a niche film like this competently and stylishly. Akin to the circus, all one needs from Trapeze is a good time. We get what we paid for. It makes our night, not our year. B+