Man on a Tightrope (1953): Kazan’s Circus-Set Political Melodrama, Starring Fredric March, Terry Moore, Gloria Grahame

In 1953, Elia Kazan directed Man on a Tightrope, one of his weaker films, an obvious political melodrama set in a circus in Czechoslovakia, starring Fredric March, Terry Moore and Gloria Grahame.

Grade: C+ (**1/2 out of *****)

Playing at the Berlin Film Festival, the movie received mixed reviews but was a commercial failure.

Placed in the broader context of Kazan’s career, Man on a Tightrope, preceded two masterpieces, the Oscar winning On the Waterfront in 1954, starring Brando, and East of Eden in 1955, boasting a towering performance by James Dean.

Man on a Tightrope
Man on a Tightrope poster.jpg

Theatrical poster

The screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood was based on a 1952 novel of the same title by Neil Paterson. Paterson based his true story, which first appeared as the magazine novelette International Incident, on the escape of the Circus Brumbach from East Germany in 1950. Members of the Circus Brumbach appeared in the film version in both character roles and as extras.

In 1952 Czechoslovakia, circus man Karel Cernik struggles to keep his beloved Cirkus Cernik together, which belonged to his family before being nationalized by the Communist government. The government allows Cernik to manage the circus, but he grapples with deteriorating conditions in the circus, loss of his workers to the state, and tension with his willful daughter Tereza, and his young second wife Zama, whom everyone suspects of being unfaithful. Cernik wants to end a budding romance between Tereza and roustabout Joe Vosdek, who has been with the circus for only a year.

Cernik is interrogated at the headquarters of the S.N.B. state security in Pilzen on avoiding to perform the Marxist propaganda acts dictated by the government. Cernik explains that the skits were not funny, and that audiences prefer his usual act. The S.N.B. chief orders him to resume the required act, and to dismiss a longtime trouper. Cernik is fined and released, though Fesker believes he is a threat to the state.

Encouraged by recent escapes from behind the Iron Curtain, Cernik decides to escape over the border to Bavaria. Cernik suspects that Joe is the spy, but Joe is actually a deserter from the American Army planning an escape of his own.

Cernik’s longtime rival Barovik, who knows of the escape plan, assures Cernik that as a fellow circus man, he will not betray him. Cernik agrees to leave behind most of his equipment for Barovik.

Cernik then discovers that Krofta, a vet of circus for decades, is actually the spy. Cernik ties up Krofta but is confronted by Fesker about a travel permit. Fesker is about to pursue the circus when he is arrested by a commissar for issuing the travel permit.

Joe reveals himself to Cernik, who incorporates him into the plan.

At the border crossing, Krofta escapes, but he is stopped by Cernik from warning the border guards and is mortally wounded,

Using an audacious and violent dash across the only bridge, the circus safely escape only to be told that Cernik has paid with his life.

But the show must go on: honoring his last wish, Zama orders the troupe to prepare for their next performance.

Shot on location in Bavaria, West Germany, authentic acts were used, and the Circus Brumbach was employed for the production.

The original plot to escape in small increments across the border was the factual way the Circus Brumbach escaped.

Fredric March as Karel Cernik
Terry Moore as Tereza Cernik
Gloria Grahame as Zama Cernik
Cameron Mitchell as Joe Vosdek
Adolphe Menjou as Fesker
Robert Beatty as Barovic
Alexander D’Arcy as Rudolph
Richard Boone as Krofta
Pat Henning as Konradin
Paul Hartman as Jaromir
John Dehner as the SNB chief


Directed by Elia Kazan
Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, based on Man on a Tightrope, the 1953 Short Novel by Neil Paterson
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography Georg Krause
Edited by Dorothy Spencer
Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

Release date: April 1, 1953

Running time: 105 minutes
Budget $1.2 million