Circus of Fear aka Circus of Terror; Das Rätsel des silbernen Dreieck; Psycho-Circus (Dir John Llewellyn Moxey, 1966)
Basic plot: A security guard is killed during an armed robbery on Tower Bridge. The robbers get away with the money leaving no traces behind them. Inspector Elliott is getting nowhere fast with his investigation to find both the robbers and the money, until he discovers some of the money has been banked by Barberini, the owner of a visiting circus. At the circus Elliott uncovers blackmail, murder and concealed identities, but will he track down the robbers and the money?
Cast: Manfred Hart – Klaus Kinski; Gregor – Christopher Lee; Elliott – Leo Genn; Barberini – Anthony Newlands; Carl – Heinz Drache; Eddie – Eddi Arent; Gina – Margaret Lee; Natasha – Suzy Kendall; Sir John – Cecil Parker; Mason – Victor Maddern; Mario – Maurice Kaufmann; Manley – Lawrence James; Jackson – Tom Bowman; Mr Big – Skip Martin; Red – Nosher Powell
Filming locations: Winkfield, Berkshire; Bray Studios, near Windsor, Berkshire; Tower Bridge, Tower Hill and Tower Bridge Road, London
Release date: 29 April 1966 West Germany; May 1967 USA; November 1967 UK
Availability: Circus of Fear is available in various issues – the copy I have (Cinema Club), and which is reviewed here, runs at just 82 minutes and has no extras. There is another version, undoubtedly better, available from Blue Underground which runs at 90 minutes and has a director’s commentary and trailers. I’ll update the review when I have the Blue Underground version…
The film in full – *SPOILER ALERT*:
Circus of Fear is a great little film packed with mystery. It opens with Klaus, which is always a bonus. The location is the Thames River, near Tower Bridge. Manfred (KK) is a shady character, skulking around and watching a man through a window at 6:50am. We later discover he is a criminal with “plenty of form here and on the continent; smuggling mainly with a touch of violence thrown in.”
Manfred is working with a gang of robbers who are planning to hold up a security van, which is helpfully being driven by one of their men, Mason. The plan works like clockwork with each gang member assigned duties to be carried out according to their precise timings. That is, until Mason shoots his fellow security guard who was about to attack one of the gang members…
But the money has quickly been zipped down a wire from the bridge to a boat below and the gang have all descended to the boat in the same way, so other than the injured security guard there is no evidence left behind to identify the perpetrators. And the only witness to the crime unfortunately dies when Inspector Elliott arrives on the scene, leaving him with no leads whatsoever.
Elsewhere, the gang carry out a post mortem of the crime and Mason is in trouble. Jackson, who appears to have line management responsibilities for the gang, calls the mysterious boss and informs him of Mason’s misdemeanour. Whilst this takes place it should be noted that Manfred is lurking in the background listening in. This is a major theme of the film – people surreptitiously watching and listening, in fact there are so many of them watching in the shadows that I’m surprised they don’t bump into each other! – along with the other theme which is identities or rather uncertainty regarding identity.
Mason is told that the boss wants him to go to The Old Farm in Englemere – he needs to hire a car and get rid of it before he arrives – with some of the takings from the robbery. But who is the boss? Jackson says that no one knows this and it is better that way – a big question here, how is it possible that no one knows who the boss is? At least one person must know otherwise how did the gang get together and plan the job in the first place?
Anyway, Mason is told that if he manages to fulfil this task they will get him out of the country. With Manfred discovered lurking in the background, Jackson tells him that they should meet in a week’s time to arrange to get the money out of the country. Manfred’s main concern is when he is going to get his share of the loot – but he won’t be getting that until he has finished the job, which means waiting for a week.
Whilst Mason heads off to Englemere, the Inspector gets his first tip off about a vehicle which may have been involved in the robbery. The vehicle is traced and chased up the motorway by the police and eventually crashes into the woods and explodes. Jackson is dead and one of the gang informs the Inspector that Mason was behind the shooting and he has left with the bulk of the money.
Meantime Mason is approaching The Old Farm, as instructed he disposes of the car and goes on foot to the farm with £250,000 in a suitcase. The Old Farm is dark inside and there are no lights. By torchlight Mason makes out the outlines of some sinister masks and suddenly a wild cat in a cage roars. Naturally Mason realises that something is amiss and tries to flee but a knife in the back puts paid to that. There is a silver triangle on the handle of the knife. A hand reaches out and takes the case – we don’t see the murderer; we don’t know if it’s the mysterious boss or if it is someone else; we don’t yet know the relevance of the silver triangle.
This is what I love about Circus of Fear, that there is so much that we do not know, that there are so many red herrings, and that the camera restricts our knowledge by keeping characters in the off-screen space at key moments. As a viewer we’re in a position where we know more than the Inspector, and we’re privy to certain scenes that some of the characters in the film are unaware of and yet there is still so much that we do not know; it’s very difficult to work out what all the characters are up to and what their motivations are.
We’re introduced to a great number of characters who, for a variety of reasons, can be treated with suspicion:
- The mystery man – the beautiful Gina (Margaret Lee) is having an affair with an unidentified character. The mystery man strokes her legs, helps her to fasten her leotard, lights her cigarette and not once does he speak or show his face. A great way to restrict our knowledge! He has a mirrored cabinet on the wall and this is full of knives with the silver triangle symbol on them. One of them is missing… he’s undoubtedly the murderer and the man who took the money, but who is he? All we know about this mystery man is that he is incredibly hairy on his arms and his back and he wears a white vest in bed!
- The Great Gregor – Gregor wears a mask much like the one worn by The Elephant Man, apparently due to a terrible accident which resulted in severe facial injuries. But has anyone actually seen his face without the mask? He works as a lion tamer and he has a suitcase of money hidden underneath the lion’s cage, which he keeps dipping into from time to time. The rest of the circus people suspect him when the lion is let loose on Gina, could it be that Gregor is the mystery man who took the case of money? He’s quite hairy as well, he could easily be the mystery man, but is he really guilty of murder? Or is this just a red herring? And if so, what is it that Gregor is really hiding?
- Mario – Gina’s fiancé, he seems to have a bit of a temper on him as he manhandles Gina when she tells him that it is none of his business where she has been when she’s been off with her hairy fancy man. And Mario fights with Carl when he thinks he is flirting with Gina. Mario is a knife thrower but he is not Gina’s mystery man and he asks the same question as the viewer – “Who is it? Who is it?!!” But Mario wants to know this for very different reasons to the viewer
- Gina – the lovely knife thrower’s assistant is said to be a tad unfaithful to her fiancé, let’s say, and she is currently having an affair with the mystery man. She accidentally discovers his knives in the cabinet on the wall and notices that there is one knife missing. Her suspicions are aroused later when a knife with a silver triangle is discovered to have been a murder weapon. She starts to believe that someone is trying to kill her when a lion is let loose on her, she is about to speak to the Inspector about her suspicions when she is found dead with a knife in the back – another knife with a silver triangle on it…
- Mr Big – O! The irony! This well-spoken little fellow appears to be both a blackmailer and a voyeur, but then watching in the shadows gives him the information he needs to be able to continue with his extortion and threatening behaviour… Whilst he may not be the mystery man with the suitcase, he seems to know quite a lot. Will he get his comeuppance?
- Barberini – the owner of the circus, he banks some money that is traced back as being part of the Tower Bridge robbery, is he the mystery man with the suitcase?
- Manfred – our old friend Manfred arrives at the circus, announces that he is looking for work and lurks in the shadows but we know he’s not the mystery man with the suitcase because he is frantically looking for the suitcase himself
- Carl – the ringmaster at the circus, Carl seems to be a bit too nosey and always checking up on the other circus folk; he seems to be most interested in Gregor and is always prying about the accident and whether or not anyone has ever seen his face without the mask. What information is Carl looking for? Mr Big is suspicious of Carl and his motives for joining the circus. Carl flirts with Gina, but could he really be Gina’s mystery lover and the murderer?
- Eddie – he’s totally annoying with his constant attempts to get the attention of Barberini and to get his useless act incorporated into the show. He certainly doesn’t look like Gina’s type either, so there’s no reason to believe he is the murderer. Or is there…?
- Natasha – Gregor’s niece, whilst not a suspect she does appear to be keeping some kind of secret. With Gregor under suspicion, does she know the identity of the murderer? If not, why does Gregor disapprove of her having visitors and talking to the nosey Carl? Is her father really in South Africa?
- The Great Danilla – a famous knife thrower who died ten years ago, we’re told that he had a son but he kept him out of the circus as he wanted him to be a gentleman. But what is the relevance of this story? And who is the Great Danilla’s son? Could he be the murderer?
All these mysteries are solved one by one in this great little film which really keeps you guessing, until Inspector Elliott finds the murderer and the man behind the Tower Bridge robbery. Klaus is amazing; Margaret Lee is gorgeous; the cinematography is interesting with some lovely, quirky images throughout; Leo Genn provides a bit of gentle, wry humour in his role as the Inspector, especially during his scenes with Sir John. I’d definitely recommend this film.
Kinski’s acting methods: Just got to say, Klaus looks superb in this film. As ever he has his hands in his pockets throughout:
But he also appears to be smoking for Germany and even speaks lines of dialogue with a cigarette dangling from his mouth:
Klaus also manages to get in the odd “staring through a window” shot as well:
My favourite part of the film is the sequence where Klaus arrives at the circus and says he is looking for work. Mr Big is practising with a whip and we’re alerted to Manfred’s presence when we see a foot stepping on the end of the whip.
He definitely needs to brush up on his interview technique:
Mr Big: What do you want?
Carl: What’s your name?
Manfred: That’s my business
Carl: I see. Have you ever worked in the circus before?
Carl: You’d better tell the truth. Why have you come here?
Manfred: I’ve just told you. All I want is work
Barberini: We don’t want any help
Manfred: I don’t want hard work
Barberini: If there is any work, I will let you know. Where are you living?
Manfred: I’ll be around
Eddie: Okay, let’s have your name and address
Manfred: Forget it, I will be back
Somehow, I don’t think Manfred would have got a job offer after that interview!
Another great moment is Manfred’s death – as he is stabbed in the chest, he falls over and as he does so he grabs one of the huge circus character heads and lands in the hay with the head next to him:
Other information about the film: I haven’t managed to track down any horror stories about Klaus misbehaving on this film, but given that he worked regularly with Christopher Lee and Heinz Drache and did more than 10 films with both Margaret Lee and Eddi Arent, I’m sure they would have been used to his behaviour anyway!
This film seems to be available in as many issues as it has alternative titles – the issue I have is an edited version and as I said before a full length version is available through Blue Underground. But I’m not sure if that is the same version as a video I have read about which has extra footage and an introduction by John Carradine. I’ll find out when I get my hands on it.
Also, I understand from IMDB that the film was released in b+w in West Germany upon its original release and was not made available in its colour version in Germany until 2006. Apparently the reason for this is because Rialto, the German production company, wanted to promote a different film (Der Bucklige von Soho) as the first Edgar Wallace film in colour.