Monday, October 12, 2009

Kazan at Film Forum: Man on a Tightrope

By the time Elia Kazan testified before the HUAC Committee, the gist of the Great Purge and Stalin’s forced collectivization policies had been reported in the west. Yet for many in Hollywood, Kazan remains the villain for trying to expose the activities of the Moscow-controlled CPUSA in his chosen field. As a result, despite directing some of the greatest masterpieces of American cinema, Kazan was treated like a pariah in the industry he sought to save. As the first film Kazan helmed after testifying, the lesser known Man on a Tightrope takes on tremendous personal and political significance given the context of his tumultuous history. Rarely seen in repertory, it screens once next Tuesday as part of the Film Forum’s welcomed Elia Kazan retrospective.

Karel Cernik is not a great clown, but he understands comedy better than the Party bosses who now regulate the circus still bearing his name. Of course, “the people” now own it, but Cernik is allowed to stay on as the manager. However, he chafes under the edicts of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.

Cernik has other problems too. His wife Zama openly carries on with Rudolph, the Robert Goulet-looking lion-tamer, while his daughter Tereza is making eyes at Vosdek, the suspicious drifter who recently signed on as a handyman. Most pressing is the revelation of a spy in their midst, who has fed incriminating information to the local authorities. Though they know he has listened to forbidden western radio broadcasts, they do not seem to suspect the full extent of Cernik’s plans. He intends to make a mad dash for the border, with the elephants and the rest of the circus animals in tow.

It is hard not to draw parallels between Kazan and Cernik, two men appalled by the politicizing of their art. Indeed, Cernik is the heart and soul of the film. Used to playing a supporting role in his own circus while others enjoy the spotlight, he is a man who silently suffers the indignities of life. Yet, he is capable of great courage and sacrifice for the sake of those he loves—his immediate family and the extended family of the circus.

Frederic March gives one of the great unsung screen performances as Cernik. His circus everyman is heroic, even noble, but not saintly. This is fully developed character, warts and all. Unfortunately, the supporting cast largely falls below his considerably high standard. Adolphe Menjou (also a HUAC witness) is perfectly cast as Fesker, Cernik’s moustache-twisting tormentor, but Cameron Mitchell seems to be doing a subpar Brando impersonation as Vosdek.

Shot on location in Europe with the participation of the real-life Brumbach Circus, Tightrope looks convincingly authentic. Kazan elicits a truly remarkable performance from March, and nicely stages Cernik’s unlikely act of desperation. Together with On the Waterfront, a story of another everyman who dared to confront corruption, Tightrope offers a clear rejoinder to those who vilified his “naming names.” Described by Kazan as his “ode to individualism” Tightrope is an above average Hollywood studio film that has clearly has a wider historical import. It screens next Tuesday night (10/20) at Film Forum.