Available on demand from MGM Limited Editions is one of the biggest hits of 1956, Trapeze, a literally high-flying melodrama in color and Cinemascope. It’s among the many intelligent and popular projects produced by Burt Lancaster’s company as vehicles for himself. He plays a circus rigger who limps from a fall ever since he failed to complete a triple somersault several years earlier. Now wallowing in booze and isolation, he finds a chance at redemption when he’s sought by a young man (Tony Curtis) who wants to learn from him and revive the act. Things are going fine except that an ambitious, ladder-climbing sexpot (Gina Lollobrigida) is using all her wiles to horn in on a winning act, and this creates a romantic and highly physical triangle in which everyone’s jealousies simmer for everyone else.
Director Carol Reed made his reputation with black and white films of the 30s and 40s, most famously The Third Man. He embraced color and widescreen, which served his expressive impulses just as well. Shot in Paris at the Circque d’Hiver, Trapeze has plenty in common with The Third Man: tilted angles, dizzy heights, cobbled streets, European brooding, a sense of scrambling and unscrupulous lives, a sense of life as a spectacle of tatty glamour. You could almost call it a noir romance. If the ending avoids tragedy in favor of the “happy”, it’s surprisingly sober in its vertiginous deliriums and compromises. The visual approach of Reed and photographer Robert Krasker is so vivid, you’d think the film was made for 3-D. The print indicates some restoration would be in order, and the colors sometimes blur.
Scriptwriter James R. Webb (adapting a novel by Max Catto) had previously written the excellent Robert Aldrich westerns Apache and Vera Cruz for Lancaster. Curtis and Lancaster would soon reunite in London for Sweet Smell of Success, a downbeat noir that functions as a character study of desperation and social-climbing ambition, pushing for the tragedy that Trapeze barely avoids. Reed (underrated for decades) would eventually win an Oscar for the musical Oliver.