Man on a Tightrope

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Drama, USA, 1953, 105 min., black and white

Synopsis In Czechoslovakia in 1952, downtrodden circus man Karel Cernik struggles to keep together his beloved Cirkus Cernik, which belonged to him before being taken over by the Communist government. The government has allowed Karel to manage the circus, although he is constantly hounded by the secret police, known as the S.N.B., and the ministry of propaganda, which wants him to incorporate anti-Western themes into the show. Karel, who performs as a clown, must contend with losing his best workers to forced factory work, as well as the tension between his willful daughter Tereza and his unfaithful second wife Zama. Karel tries to end the budding romance between Tereza and roustabout Joe Vosdek by telling Tereza that they know nothing about Joe, who has been with the circus for only a year. Tereza insists that she loves Joe, however, and their argument is forgotten when Karel is taken to S.N.B. headquarters in Pilzen. There, the chief interrogates Karel, asking him why he is not performing a government-dictated act, in which he is to portray an American "Negro" who is abused by a Wall Street tycoon. Karel explains that the changes were not funny, and that the audience preferred his usual act. The chief orders him to resume the required act, and is about to dismiss him when propaganda minister Fesker casually asks him about the radio in his caravan. Karel nervously states that the radio cannot receive shortwave transmissions, and after he is dismissed, the S.N.B. officials are angered that Karel's dossier did not contain information about the radio. Although the police chief believes that Karel poses no threat, Fesker disagrees, and piqued, the chief orders his subordinates to investigate Fesker as well as Karel. Unknown to the officials, Karel does listen to shortwave transmissions and, inspired by a recent spate of escapes from the Iron Curtain, has decided to move the circus over the border to Bavaria. Karel's co-conspiraters include his brother-in-law Jaromir and friend Konradin, and he tells them that there is a spy in the circus who reported the information about the radio and clown act. Karel suspects that Joe is the spy, but unknown to him, Tereza has learned that Joe is planning an escape attempt of his own. Joe was born in Czechoslovakia but was sent to the United States by his father when he was fourteen, and after joining the American Army, was sent overseas and eventually slipped across the border to search for his father. After discovering that his father was killed in a German concentration camp, Joe joined the circus in order to travel undetected. The next morning, Karel's rival, the grandiose Vladislav Barovik, visits and reveals that he knows every detail of Karel's escape plan. Barovik's information comes from Kalka, a dwarf who had eavesdropped on Karel after being fired by him. Barovik assures Karel that although they are rivals, they are both circus men, and that he will not betray him. Karel agrees to leave behind some equipment for Barovik, and the pair stage a fake fight to keep the police from guessing the truth about their conference. Realizing that he must act swiftly, Karel tells Jaromir and Konradin that they must head for the border immediately and, wanting to get rid of Joe, sends him ahead to a different location with the tent wagons. Karel, Konradin and Jaromir then drive to the small military checkpoint near a bridge, which they intend to walk across to the American-patrolled side. Having finalized their plans based on the layout of the outpost, they then return to the circus. At the camp, however, Krofta, who has worked for Karel for twenty years, vigorously protests Karel's unusual orders, and Karel realizes that he is the spy. Karel knocks Krofta unconscious and ties him up, then is confronted by Fesker, who interrogates him about his fight with Barovik. Realizing that he needs to obtain a travel permit, Karel goes with Fesker to police headquarters, where Fesker issues the permit because he suspects that Karel is planning an escape and should be followed. Karel then returns to the camp, where he informs an admiring Zama about his plan. Realizing how deep her quiet husband's courage runs, Zama is determined to renew their marriage, but first admits that Tereza accompanied Joe. Horrified, Karel leaves to find the couple, and when he learns the truth about Joe, Karel brings him back with Tereza. As they approach the checkpoint, Joe distracts a sentry and knocks him unconscious, then dons his uniform and pretends to be escorting the circus. Karel insists on being last in the parade of performers and caravans, while in Pilzen, Fesker is about to pursue the circus when he is arrested by a S.N.B. sergeant for exceeding his authority in issuing Karel's travel permit. As they come closer to the bridge, the circus performers delight the Communist soldiers, who believe that they are being given a free show. Krofta loosens his bonds and escapes, and as he threatens Karel with a gun, Kalka, who has been forgiven by Karel, attacks him, and during the ensuing struggle, Karel is fatally wounded. Kalka shoots and kills Krofta, and the performers use sound effects to cover up the gunshots. Just before they reach the barbed wire fence, the performers turn loose the circus' wolves, and Joe throws a homemade bomb at the soldiers. Joe then uses his pistol to hold off the soldiers while the others run, escort the animals and drive the caravans across the bridge, to the bemusement of the American soldiers. Both Konradin and lion tamer Rudolph are killed as they aid the others, and once the rest are safely across, they realize that Karel also has died. Obeying his dying wish, Zama orders the troupe to begin performing for the gathering crowd, and, finally united, Tereza echos her stepmother's orders.

Directed by Elia Kazan  

Starring Fredric March, Terry Moore, Gloria Grahame, Cameron Mitchell, Adolphe Menjou, more...

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