Circus World / The Magnificent Showman (1963) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Bookended by disaster – a ship turning turtle, fire raging in the big tent – and kept aloft by giddy circus turns this long-ignored movie in the John Wayne canon is ripe for reassessment. In more down-to-earth mold, with no villains to rein in, no gun-toting required, this calls upon something more basic from the actor, the dramatic skill required to make the audience fix on a strong character within a spectacular screen event.

Presented in stunning Super Technirama, the swansong of maverick producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961), and mistakenly viewed as little more than a travelog or a compendium of circus acts, this dwells instead on transition and loss as Matt Masters (John Wayne) struggles to allow adopted daughter Toni (Claudia Cardinale) to grow up and to come to terms with the part he played in the romantic calamity – father a high-wire suicide, acrobatic mother Lili (Rita Hayworth) fleeing to Europe – that left her parentless.  

It’s no coincidence that sending his three-ring circus cum Wild West Show on a lucrative tour of Europe in the early part of the 20th century provides an opportunity to hunt for Lili, the love of his life. But the circus ship capsizes in Barcelona, leaving Masters penniless, forced to  work for a rival European promoter until he can scrape together enough dough to start again. Masters uses the opportunity of traveling through European capitals to scout new acts, including clown Aldo (Richard Conte), a lion-tamer turned tiger-tamer Emile (Hans Dante), and ballerina Katharyna (Giovana) who performs on the high wire while Toni wants to chance her arm against Matt’s objections as an acrobat and flex her romantic muscles in romantic dalliance with Matt’s new partner Steve (John Smith).

The subplots add dramatic heft, the lion-tamer is frightened of tigers, Aldo has vengeance in mind, so in between the scintillating circus acts the storyline is compressed around the drink- and guilt-sodden Lili and conflict on several fronts with Toni while old retainer Cap (Lloyd Nolan) is on hand to pep up or challenge Matt.

You wouldn’t be allowed to make this kind of film these days so it’s worth glorying in the glory days of the circus – dancing horses, lions, tigers, elephants, acrobats and genuinely hilarious clown sequences. It being a three-ring circus there’s always something going on, plus the Wild West element which comprises a stagecoach being attacked.

John Wayne is as befuddled as ever in romance, restricting his trademark double take to astonishment at Tony’s transition to womanhood. There’s an occasional reversal but mostly  it’s a battle against the odds, potential triumph leavened by gritty loss.

A modern producer would have switched the disasters – it didn’t really matter how Matt got into a fix. But the capsizing, appearing so early the effect is stunning, is brilliantly handled, not just the rescue of people and animals but Matt in lion-taming mode and ending with a clever coda. In every photograph Lili’s face has been scratched out but in among the saturated notes of Matt’s vital cash box is a picture of her.

Some critics have suggested John Wayne (In Harm’s Way, 1965), recovering from his own financial debacle caused by over-investment in The Alamo (1960), took the role for financial expediency. But I can see the attraction, as I’m sure the actor did. This is a far more rounded character than anything since The Searchers (1956) and he can’t even find redemption from a six-shooter. He’s more protective than aggressive, paternal instinct triggering character reaction, and it’s more of a James Stewart type of role, coming back from adversity, and nothing straightforward about a man whose love affair caused marital disaster.

Critics have also taken pot-shots at Claudia Cardinale (The Pink Panther, 1963) as if she was not already an accomplished actress (a favorite of Visconti, for example) in a compelling role and competing on even terms with a star of John Wayne’s charisma without being able to fall back on the old saw of the romantic interest. Although playing a character nearly a decade younger, Cardinale  brings an earthy feistiness to a character with a bucket of decisions to make, turning on its head her relationship with Matt and going through the dramatic hoops with Lili.

Rita Hayworth (The Happy Thieves, 1961) has shucked off the glamor, a worn-down relic of her former self, turning to drink and religion in equal measure in vain hope of finding peace. Veteran Lloyd Nolan (The Double Man, 1967) and Richard Conte (Assault on a Queen, 1966) hold their own, but John Smith (Waco, 1966) does not. Look out for former British star Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965).  

Henry Hathaway (5 Card Stud, 1968) does a terrific job marshalling all the elements, containing the core family drama within the wider action-oriented structure. While there’s never a dull moment, in among all the spectacular scenes are some exhibiting a particularly sensitive directorial touch such as when Matt discovers Lili’s hotel room and reflects on his own misdemeanors.

There were almost as many writers as circus performers – James Edward Grant (The Commancheros, 1961), Ben Hecht (Spellbound, 1945), Julian Zimet (A Place for Lovers, 1968), Bernard Gordon (55 Days at Peking, 1963), Nicholas Ray (The Savage Innocents, 1960) and Philip Yordan (El Cid).

Come at it from the fun perspective and you won’t go wrong. John Wayne completists will adore it.

I was lucky enough to see this is full glorious widescreen at the cinema where it was the Closing Film at this year’s  Widescreen Weekend in Bradford. What a way to end a show!

Uncharted (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Hugely enjoyable fast-paced romp with clues, ancient maps, sunken treasure, double-cross upon double-cross, action and twists all the way in what could be the next major franchise. Barman Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) teams up somewhat unwillingly with  unscrupulous Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) and Chloe Frazer (Sophie Ali) to find $5 billion in gold. In their way: the ruthless Santiago Moncado (Antonio Banderas), henchperson Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) and assorted roughnecks.

Confession: I’ve no idea what computer game sparked this movie so come with no preconceptions. History lesson: the gold was lost by Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan, the first guy to sail round the world, while Sir Francis Drake was the first Englishman to do the same.

Two outstanding action sequences top and tail the movie, the first a battle in a cargo plane that is dumping its cargo, the second, just astonishing in its virtuosity, a duel between airborne shipwrecks. In between are a scramble in an art gallery and a roofotop chase. And to keep the audience on its toes all kinds of relics are brought into play as well as hidden tunnels, churches and chambers complete with the usual Indiana Jones-style booby traps, never mind a ton of bullets, and a bunch of clues to be deciphered from maps and walls not to mention postcards and trees. Part of the fun is that the gang don’t get it right all the time with alarming consequences.

It’s all done with such verve and although it’s certainly a close relative to the Indiana Jones series it’s minus their mystical nonsense while the characters certainly are not called upon to do good for their country or save the world from any dictatorships. The guys just want to make money. And what’s wrong with that? It lends the movie a certain solidity. And the fact that none of the characters trusts the others ensures that the status quo never remains quo for long and that swift change is going to be the order of the day.

Tom Holland (Spider-Man: No Way Home, 2021) bulks up and seizes the opportunity to become a major star outside the comic book hero. Too often franchise pictures have produced wallpaper stars, attracting audiences in the tight confines of their multiverses but failing to add any box office muscle to other projects. This character proves an inspired choice. Holland gets to be athletic, as well as the young guy making his bones in a cut-throat (pardon the pun) world, holds up his side in the edgy banter with Wahlberg, and rounds out his personality by being a prize thief and vulnerable guy who misses his lost older brother.  

Mark Wahlberg (Infinite, 2021) hasn’t had this good a role since Patriot’s Day (2016) and since he’s not relied upon to carry the picture can get up to all sorts of shenanigans, which he’s usually knee-deep in, much to his apparent enjoyment. Antonio Banderas (Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, 2021) for once has a legitimate reason to use his Spanish in a Hollywood movie.

Sophie Ali (Truth or Dare, 2018) and Tati Gabrielle in her movie debut rock as female actioners, extremely convincing as mean gals, and should have been shuttled into any number of female-led action movies of the last few years that failed to bring the requisite bite. Both muscle their way into the game and refuse to be muscled out or, by dint of romantic entanglement, lose their edge. There’s a nice cameo – and a running joke – by Steven Waddington (The Imitation Game, 2014) as an incomprehensible Scotsman.

Reuben Fleischer has taken the directorial cojones he displayed in Gangster Squad (2013) and Venom (2018) and squeezed the life out of them to keep this little number zipping along, scarcely stopping to take a breath, never finding itself in a dead end, and holding enough marvel back to pull off  the audacious ending of the flying shipwrecks, on a par with any image Steven Spielberg ever pulled out of his locker. Rafe Judkins, another movie debutante, and the partnership of Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (Iron Man, 2008)  assembled the screenplay from the Playstation game.

As I said I’ve no idea what were the ingredients in the original game and whether the writers have played fast and loose with the concept but all I can say is it’s a helluva movie.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) **** – Back on the Big Screen

Reassessment sixty years on – and on the big screen, too – presents a darker picture bursting to escape the confines of Hollywood gloss. Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) is one of the most iconic characters ever to hit the screen. Her little black dress, hats, English drawl and elongated cigarette holder often get in the way of accepting the character within, the former hillbilly wild child who refuses to be owned or caged, her demand for independence constrained by her desire to marry into wealth for the supposed freedom that will bring, contradictory demands which clearly place a strain on her mental health.

Although only hinted at then, and more obvious now, she is willing to sell her body in a bid to save her soul. Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a gigolo, being kept, in some style I should add with a walk-in wardrobe full of suits, by wealthy married Emily (Patricia Neal), is her male equivalent, a published author whose promise does not pay the bills. The constructs both have created to hide from the realities of life are soon exposed.

There is much to adore here, not least Golightly’s ravishing outfits, her kookiness and endearing haplessness faced with an ordinary chore such as cooking. the central section, where the couple try to buy something at Tiffanys on a budget of $10, introduce Holly to the New York public library and boost items from a dime store, fits neatly into the rom-com tradition.

Golightly’s income, which she can scarcely manage given her extravagant fashion expenditure, depends on a weekly $100 for delivering coded messages to gangster Sally in Sing Sing prison, and taking $50 for powder room expenses from every male who takes her out to dinner, not to mention the various sundries for which her wide range of companions will foot the bill.

Her sophisticated veneer fails to convince those whom she most needs to convince. Agent O.J. Berman (Martin Balsam) recognizes her as a phoney while potential marriage targets like Rusty Trawler (Stanley Adams) and Jose (Jose da Silva Pereira) either look elsewhere or fear the danger of association.

The appearance of former husband Doc (Buddy Ebsen) casts light on a grim past, married at fourteen, expected to look after an existing family and her brother, and underscores the legend of her transformation. But the “mean reds” from which she suffers seem like ongoing depression, as life stubbornly refuses to conform to her dreams. Her inability to adopt to normality is dressed up as an early form of feminism, independence at its core, at a time when the vast bulk of women were dependent on men for financial and emotional security. Her strategy to gain such independence is dependent on duping independent unsuitable men into funding her lifestyle.  

Of course, you could not get away in those days with a film that concentrated on the coarser elements of her existence and few moviegoers would queue up for such a cinematic experience so it is a tribute to the skill of director Blake Edwards (Operation Petticoat, 1959), at that time primarily known for comedy, to find a way into the Truman Capote bestseller, adapted for the screen by George Axelrod (The Seven Year Itch, 1955),  that does not compromise the material just to impose Hollywood confection. In other hands, the darker aspects of her relationships might have been completely extinguished in the pursuit of a fabulous character who wears fabulous clothes.

Audrey Hepburn is sensational in the role, truly captivating, endearing and fragile in equal measure, an extrovert suffering from self-doubt, but with manipulation a specialty, her inspired quirks lighting up the screen as much as the Givenchy little black dress. It’s her pivotal role of the decade, her characters thereafter splitting into the two sides of her Golightly persona, kooks with a bent for fashion, or conflicted women dealing with inner turmoil.

It’s a shame to say that, in making his movie debut, George Peppard probably pulled off his best-ever performance, before he succumbed to the surliness that often appeared core to his later acting. And there were some fine cameos. Buddy Ebsen revived his career and went on to become a television icon in The Beverley Hillbillies. The same held true for Patricia Neal in her first film in four years, paving the way for an Oscar-winning turn in Hud (1963). Martin Balsam (Psycho, 1960) produced another memorable character while John McGiver (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) possibly stole the show among the supporting cast with his turn as the Tiffany’s salesman.

On the downside, however, was the racist slant. Never mind that Mickey Rooney was a terrible choice to play a Japanese neighbor, his performance was an insult to the Japanese, the worst kind of stereotype.

The other plus of course was the theme song, “Moon River,” by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, which has become a classic, and in the film representing the wistful yearning elements of her character.

CATCH IT ON THE BIG SCREEN: This is a restoration of the classic. The Showcase chain is showing it all this week in various cinemas throughout the United Kingdom (I caught it last week at my local Showcase). It is also showing in Barcelona on July 26; Amsterdam on July 31-August 3; Stockholm on August 5; and Gent, Belgium, on August 6.

A company called Park Circus – which has offices in London, Paris, Los Angeles and Glasgow – has the rights to the reissue and if you want to find out if the picture will be showing in your neck of the woods at a later date you can contact them on info@parkcircus.com  

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