Circus of Fear (1966)

vt Das Rätsel des Silbernen Dreieck; vt Scotland Yard auf Heißer Spur; vt Circus of Terror; vt Psycho-Circus

UK, WG / 91 minutes / color / Circus, Proudweeks, Warner-Pathé, Constantin, AIP Dir: John Moxey (i.e., John Llewellyn Moxey) (UK), Werner Jacobs (WG) Pr: Harry Alan Towers Scr: Peter Welbeck (i.e., Harry Alan Towers) Story: see below Cine: Ernest Steward, John von Kotze Cast: Christopher Lee, Leo Genn, Anthony Newlands, Heinz Drache, Eddi Arent, Klaus Kinski, Margaret Lee, Suzy Kendall, Cecil Parker, Victor Maddern, Lawrence James, Tom Bowman, Skip Martin, Maurice Kaufmann, Dennis Blakely.

Circus of Fear - Klaus Kinski as creepy crook Manfred Hart

Klaus Kinski as creepy crook Manfred Hart.

This is usually listed as being based upon The Three Just Men (1926) by Edgar Wallace, but has nothing to do with that novel. It was filmed in color, although most of the copies released to the US (as Psycho-Circus) were in black-and-white.

Circus of Fear - descent from Tower Bridge

The daring descent from Tower Bridge to the waiting boat.

A mysterious criminal mastermind organizes an armored-van heist on London’s Tower Bridge, the gang escaping along the Thames via speedboat. When one of the van guards puts up a fight, he’s shot by his erstwhile colleague, corrupted guard Mason (Maddern). Gang leader Jackson (Bowman) is all for offing Mason, who has turned a simple robbery into a murder case, but the boss, on the phone, issues different instructions: Mason must bring the loot from the heist to The Old Farm, near Windsor. When Mason gets there he finds the place is the winter quarters for Barberini’s Worldwide Circus. He doesn’t have time to discover much more, though, because he’s killed by a thrown knife.

In the meantime an anonymous tipoff has enabled the cops, headed by Inspector Elliott (Genn), to pick up all the rest of the gang with the exception of the sinister Manfred Hart (Kinski). The captured men tell Elliott where Mason went, so down to The Old Farm the Inspector goes, accompanied by Detective-Sergeant Manley (James) of the local force.

Circus of Fear - the thrilling car chaseThere’s a thrilling car chase, too!

That there are tensions in the circus is soon evident, and a whole tangle of hatreds, fears and blackmail is revealed over the course of the tale. The lion tamer Gregor (Christopher Lee) spends his entire time in a dramatic black mask because, we’re told, of the hideous facial injuries he suffered in a dreadful accident a few years back. He’s training up his niece Natasha (Kendall) in the family act, but it’s clear she has a ways to go. The ringmaster, Carl Flemming (Drache), a relative newcomer, joined the circus because Natasha’s father Otto killed his own father in South Africa some while ago, was given a prison sentence, and soon escaped; Carl figures Otto will sooner or later attempt to see his darling daughter, at which point Carl will exact his revenge. The performer Gina (Margaret Lee) is two-timing her boyfriend with a mystery lover—not the best of ideas when that boyfriend is the circus knife-thrower, Mario (Kaufmann), and your main role is to be the target he always narrowly misses. The seedy dwarf Mr. Big (Martin) is blackmailing Gregor and snooping around wherever he thinks he might pick up some marketable dirt. Trying to keep everything in order are the circus’s proprietor, Barberini (Newlands), and his book-keeper Eddi (Arent), who yearns to perform in the ring himself.

Circus of Fear - Natasha tries not to listen to Carl

Natasha (Suzy Kendall) is mainly impervious to the blandishments of ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache).

Gina has discovered that her mystery lover has a set of throwing knives from which one blade is missing. When Mason’s corpse is finally found, she tries to tell Elliott this, only to be felled in her turn by the killer. In due course Manfred, who has taken to haunting the circus, gets too close to discovering the money, and is likewise despatched by a hurled blade. Barberini recognizes that the throwing knives used in the killings are the set that used to below to The Great Danillo, a legendary performer who died a decade ago. Could the killer be in some way related to The Great Danillo?

Circus of Fear - the lion tamer conceals his face behind a mask

The lion tamer, Gregor (Christopher Lee), conceals his face behind a mask so no one can see he has something to hide.

The solutions to most of the movie’s mysteries should be evident fairly soon even to somnolent viewers. The players include quite a few moderately well known actors, right down to the redoubtable Victor Maddern (Parker plays Elliott’s irascible boss, Sir John); one can’t help feeling that the trouble of assembling such a cast might have been put toward something more worthy of their talents. The screenplay makes it almost impossible for the performances to be anything other than hammy; the stodginess of the direction and cinematography doesn’t help. All of that said, the movie does manage to retain a certain fascination: you couldn’t accuse it of being boring.

Circus of Fear - Elliott and Barberini, with the bad guy high aloft

Inspector Elliott (Leo Genn) and circus-owner Barberini (Anthony Newlands) talk urgently as the bad guy tries to make his escape high aloft.

This was the third of three Edgar Wallace-related movies done by producer Harry Alan Towers as UK/West German coproductions, and the only one whose German version is commonly included in listings of krimi titles. (The other two, Death Drums Along the River [1963] and Coast of Skeletons [1964], are Sanders of the River adventures.) Towers was an interesting character, the creator of scores of B-movies that sometimes managed to attract distinguished actors, like Michael Caine and Orson Welles. He did a number of soft-porn movies in the late 1960s with Spanish schlock specialist Jess Franco; earlier in that decade he was accused of running a callgirl ring out of an NYC hotel with prostitute girlfriend Mariella Novotny—whose clients had included, so the yellow press gasped, John F. Kennedy before his election as US President. There were even claims that Towers was working for the KGB, the motivation for the prostitution ring being to make high-placed officials vulnerable to blackmail. He jumped bail, returning to work in Europe; many years later the Department of Justice evidently decided the charges were bunkum, because they were dropped on his payment of a modest fine for bail-jumping.


On Circus of Fear

11 thoughts on “Circus of Fear (1966)

  1. Oh I know this one well. I agree it can never be framed as boring, and it does have its moments. Heck, any film with Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski can hardly be one to take a pass on. My connection with this particular film John has almost everything to do with the director John Llewelyn Moxey. His other famous film (and most celebrated in fact) is CITY OF THE DEAD (HORROR HOTEL), a 1961 witchcraft film, that for me is the absolute best on the subject–atmospheric, spooky and marvelously plotted with a superb prologue set during the pilgrim era in Whitewood. CITY OF THE DEAD was a film I grew up with and to this day will never pass up the chance to see it again.

    Terrific write-up here John!

    • I’m trying to remember if I’ve seen City of the Dead. I know I own a copy of the thing . . . somewhere . . . but I can’t remember if I’ve actually watched it. Mind you, from what you say, if I had watched it I would remember! I’d better dig it out.

      Heck, any film with Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski can hardly be one to take a pass on.

      You fail to mention Ms. Kendall! Back in the day — around the time this movie was released — she was the nation’s heartthrob in the UK. I still get misty-eyed and wistful . . .

  2. Pingback: Too Hot to Handle (1960) | Noirish

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