Circus Queen Murder, The (1933)

The Circus Queen Murder - 0 [moody opening shot]

US / 65 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: Roy William Neill Scr: Jo Swerling Story: About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932; vt The Murder of a Circus Queen) by Anthony Abbot (credited as Anthony Abbott) Cine: Joseph August Cast: Adolphe Menjou, Donald Cook, Greta Nissen, Ruthelma Stevens, Dwight Frye, Harry Holman, George Rosener.

The Circus Queen Murder - 00 [more mood]

This low-key crime movie—it’s usually billed as a mystery, but there’s no real mystery involved—was the second in the brief Thatcher Colt series, the first being The Night Club Lady (1932) dir Irving Cummings, likewise with Menjou and Stevens. Much is made of Colt’s ability to lipread, an ability in which he’s coaching his loyal secretary (and lover?) Miss Kelly.

NYPD Commissioner Thatcher Colt (Menjou), after six hard years warring against the bootleggers, decides to take a vacation upstate in Gilead, a location he chooses by throwing a knife at a map. He takes Miss Kelly (Stevens) along with him . . . although the sleeping arrangements are left carefully unspecified.

The Circus Queen Murder - 1 Miss Kelly (Stevens) lectures Colt

Miss Kelly (Ruthelma Stevens) lectures her boss, Thatcher Colt (Adolphe Menjou) about his foolish ways.

Nearing Gilead, they discover that The Greater John T. Rainey Shows—a circus—is due to perform there in a couple of days’ time, on Friday the 13th. Watching the parade through town the next morning they’re greeted by Jim Dugan (Holman), the circus’s portly press agent and an old pal of Colt’s. He tells them the circus is in upheaval, not just because of the Friday the 13th business but because some of the principals have received anonymous threatening notes. The source of the trouble is that trapeze artist Josie La Tour (Nissen) has been cheating on her husband of just two years, the acrobat Flandrin (Frye), with yet another acrobat, The Great Sebastian (Cook).

The Circus Queen Murder - 4 the thrill of the circus parade

The thrill of the circus parade.

The Circus Queen Murder - 5 The Great Sebastian (Cook)

A dashing star of the parade: The Great Sebastian (Donald Cook).

That night Flandrin vanishes, leaving behind just some bloodstains and another menacing note, addressed to himself. Dugan, who’s the movie’s comic relief, quivers his jowls at the thought of Flandrin having perhaps been fed to the big cats or, worse, to one of the other circus acts, a troupe of Congo Cannibals. Colt sees through Flandrin’s charade immediately, as we’d expect; alas, he isn’t astute enough to save La Tour from her husband’s vengeance, delivered by Flandrin from the roof of the big top using a blowpipe and poisoned dart while La Tour performs her trapeze act high above the heads of the crowd . . .

The Circus Queen Murder - 8 Dugan (Holman) applauds the fun

Jim Dugan (Harry Holman) applauds the fun.

The Circus Queen Murder - 7 crazed by jealousy, Flandrin on big top roofCrazed by jealousy, Flandrin (Dwight Frye) perches high on the big top roof, ready to commit his dastardly deed.

Although the tone is for the most part lighthearted and the treatment in general could hardly be further from film noir, cinematographer Joseph August gives us a generous share of noirish low angles; indeed, overall the shot composition is surprisingly imaginative for what otherwise rarely aspires to be more than a routine filler. There’s also some adroit camerawork to give the impression on occasion that Nissen, as La Tour, is wearing even less than she actually is.

The Circus Queen Murder - 3 Josie La Tour (Nissen)

The glamorous source of tension, Josie La Tour (Greta Nissen).

The oddest aspect of this genial, undemanding piece is that the circus audience, after witnessing La Tour plummet to her death, stays on to enjoy the rest of the show!

The Circus Queen Murder - 9 Flandrin's swansong

Flandrin’s swansong.


5 thoughts on “Circus Queen Murder, The (1933)

  1. John, I have never seen this one, but am certainly intrigued. August is an accomplished noir cinematographer of course, and the cast including Menjou and Frye is an impressive one. Neill of course directed several Sherlock Homes films including the superb THE SCARLET CLAW. As always a terrific essay on a generally forgotten film.

    • As I seem to say so frequently about these old and near-forgotten movies (!), this is one that you wouldn’t resent spending time on should you catch it on TCM or wherever but which is hardly worth seeking out specially. Frye is probably the pick of the cast; Nissen and Stevens are good too.

  2. Pingback: The Circus Queen Murder (1933) Review, with Adolphe Menjou - Pre-Code.Com

  3. Pingback: Behind the Mask (1932) | Noirish

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