Herbert Lom stars as the malicious mesmerist in the Big Top!
UK / 93 minutes / bw / Warner–First National Dir: John Harlow Pr: Max Milder Scr: Brock Williams, Reginald Purdell Story: The Dark Tower (1933 play) by George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott Cine: Otto Heller Cast: Ben Lyon, Anne Crawford, David Farrar, Herbert Lom, Frederick Burtwell, Bill Hartnell (i.e., William Hartnell), Josephine Wilson, Elsie Wagstaffe (i.e., Elsie Wagstaff), J.H. Roberts, Aubrey Mallalieu, Reco Brothers’ Circus.
Phil Danton (Lyon) of Danton’s Empire Circus is in the process of announcing to the circus’s personnel that he can no longer afford to pay them when news arrives that Pasha the lion has escaped from his cage.
In trying to control the beast, the lion tamer (uncredited) collapses. Luckily, though, a sinister young man, Stephen Torg (Lom), who’d been trying to find a job at the circus, steps forward and, using his mesmeric abilities, cows Pasha. Naturally Phil offers him a job (unpaid) on the spot.
Drifter Torg (Herbert Lom) introduces himself to “Colonel” Wainwright (Frederick Burtwell).
Torg (Herbert Lom) immediately impresses.
Phil gathers around him his trusted colleagues: his brother Tom (Farrar), who’s his partner in the circus and also the star of the flying trapeze; Miss Mary (Crawford), Tom’s partner on the trapeze and soon to be in life; and Jimmy Powers (Hartnell), the circus’s publicist. Could they perhaps employ Torg as the new lion tamer? But Phil has a far more radical idea:
Phil: “What I’m trying to explain is I believe it might be possible for Torg to control Mary’s balance in the act through hypnotism.”
At the end of her act with Tom on the trapeze, Mary slides backward down a sloping wire to the ground. To keep her balance she uses a parasol. But, if endowed with perfect balance through Torg’s hypnotism, she could forgo the parasol! For some reason this is thought by Phil and the others to be such a sensational feat that audiences will come from far and wide to see the performance, thereby restoring the flagging circus’s fortunes.
Jimmy (William Hartnell) persuades Miss Mary (Anne Crawford) of his great idea.
Jimmy sells it to the press as such. It occurs to no one that the headline “She keeps her balance without USING a DINKY LITTLE parasol!” is not exactly going to set the world alight.
Except that, in this movie, it does. Soon Danton’s Empire Circus is playing to packed houses—well, tents—and there’s loads of money coming in. Even so, many of the artistes and hands bitterly resent Torg: with his snotty ways and his funny accent, who does he think he is? A leading resenter is Tom, who regards Torg as a potential rival for the love of Miss Mary; this fear of his is not entirely baseless, for Torg has certainly fallen hook, line and sinker for Mary while she quite clearly is not entirely unswayed by his blandishments. The other principal who loathes the mesmerist is the circus’s trick shooter, Dora Shogun (Wilson).
Phil (Ben Lyon) tries to keep things under control.
Phil isn’t too keen on Torg himself, but recognizes his value to the circus. So does Torg:
Torg: “I’d like more recognition from the people in this circus, Mr. Danton. And respect.”
Phil: “Respect? That’s something we all have to earn. After all, I buy my people’s services. Not their freedom of thought.”
Torg: “You mean, I enable you to buy their services.”
The upshot is that Torg demands, and gets, a partnership in the business. He buys himself a snazzy car (second-hand, forty quid), which impresses Mary enough that she agrees to go out to dinner with him. On the way home, he stops the car in a bosky glade and tells her about his rotten childhood, the bullying he endured, and his eventual discovery that he could communicate with and control animals. He then declares his love for her. Mary hears him out sympathetically, but “Deep inside, I know it’ll always be Tom.”
Dora (Josephine Wilson) tells Jimmy (William Hartnell) how little she likes Torg.
Up until now, we’ve likewise had some sympathies for Torg. Yes, sure, he has a cold manner and a very high opinion of himself. Yes, he’s a shirker when it comes to the menial aspects of circus life, such as striking and pitching the tent. But he’s also facing ostracism by most of the circus personnel and downright verbal abuse from some of them, notably Dora. Hereafter, though, we’re going to discover how truly he’s a villain.
If Tom is the only obstacle standing between Torg and Mary, then Tom must go. One night, just before her act, Torg hypnotizes Mary into believing she’s so tired that she’s going to lose a handhold on Tom so that he plummets from the trapeze. Sure enough, this transpires—although it emerges that Tom deliberately let go when she started saying she was too tired to keep going: “There was no need for both of us to fall.” Luckily Tom survives, although he’s badly enough injured that he may never go acrobating again.
Phil (Ben Lyon, right) visits Tom (David Farrar) in the hospital.
Phil, meanwhile, blames Miss Mary for the accident:
Phil: “Perhaps you were a bit absentminded, thinking about Torg.”
Mary: “Phil, don’t talk like that.”
Phil: “Listen, I’ll talk to you any way I like. I’ll tell the world. I’ll take a page out in every trade paper so that everybody’ll know just what kind of a doublecrosser you are. Believe me, if you ever work again . . .”
Dora (entering): “That’s enough, Phil. Come out here and talk to me.”
With Tom (Anne Crawford) out of the way, Torg (Herbert Lom) is able completely to control Mary.
Although convinced that Torg is evil, Phil is powerless against him. Soon the circus rejoices under a new name: Torg & Danton’s Circus. Mary’s performing solo on the high wire and trapeze, executing ever more dangerous stunts under Torg’s direct hypnotic command. At other times she seems almost like a zombie, her will entirely lost to the man.
As business booms, the circus changes its name.
In desperation Phil calls in a shrink with specialist knowledge in the field of hypnosis, Dr. Wilson (Roberts), to see if Mary can be wrested from Torg’s control, but Wilson pronounces that the mesmeric bonds are so strong that the only way they will ever be severed is through Torg’s death . . .
Dr. Wilson (J.H. Roberts) is gloomy about Mary’s prospects.
From here on you can make a pretty good guess as to the outcome of the movie, although in detail your guess would be wrong: Torg’s eventual killer is not the person who perpetrates the deed right before our eyes but someone else. The twist relies on an implausibility, but it’s really quite satisfying nonetheless. Overall, the tale could quite easily have been adapted to become a segment of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).
Lom gets only fourth billing, but that’s a travesty. A period of decades separated my first viewing of this movie from my second, recent one, and the only thing that really stuck in my head about it was Lom’s depiction of the saturnine outsider Torg. It’s as much a defining role as, say, Peter Lorre’s was in M (1931)—which is not, of course, to say that The Dark Tower is remotely as good a movie as Fritz Lang’s masterpiece. But, even though the other three principals are forgettably bland, Lom is so effective that the movie definitely shouldn’t be overlooked.
Of those principals, Lyon is obviously the best known. (As an aside, in his guise as a 20th Century–Fox executive he discovered Norma Jeane Dougherty and renamed her Marilyn Monroe.) Here he’s part of the long tradition of fading Hollywood stars being employed in UK productions in hopes of increasing the movies’ commercial appeal in the US. I’m not sure how effective the stratagem ever was. In Lyon’s case there was a genuine commitment to the UK. In the latter part of the 1930s he and his wife, the actress Bebe Daniels, had moved to London, where they remained until Bebe’s death in 1971. The screen work they did in the UK was almost a sideline to their highly successful radio career. Their comedy show Hi Gang!, with Vic Oliver, ran from 1940 to 1949, and was succeeded by the if anything even more popular Life with the Lyons (1950–61 on radio, 1955–60 on TV), in which they were joined by daughter Barbara, son Richard and the inimitable Molly Weir.
What’s memorable about Lyon’s participation in The Dark Tower is not so much the performance itself—which is, as noted, pretty bland—as his accent. Nowhere is there the slightest attempt to explain why English circus owner Phil Danton should have a pronounced US accent—something especially anomalous in that his similarly aged brother Tom is quite patently English. (Hm. Was there perhaps a The Parent Trap-style backstory, never revealed to us . . .?) The oddity is, though, in keeping with a movie that has a general accent problem. Miss Mary, Tom and Dora all have uppercrust accents that could bend steel bars, yet circus performers are surely not renowned as the products of expensive private schools, topped off maybe with Oxbridge.
Anne Crawford as the glamorous Miss Mary.
That’s not a difficulty among the support cast, who offer a goodly measure of comic relief and decidedly merit attention. William Hartnell was an extraordinarily prolific character actor, often playing wide boys or lovable crooks; he’s best known today for his role (1963–6) as the first and, some would say, the best incarnation of Doctor Who. As publicist Jimmy Powers (not Towers, as sometimes listed) he strikes a perfect balance between seriousness and comedy; you really never know if the next thing to come out of his mouth will be straightforward, a joke or a piece of self-mockery.
The other two noteworthy members of the support cast are played more broadly for laughs: the pompous but genial ringmaster “Colonel” William “Willie” Wainwright (Burtwell) and his straitlaced shrew of a wife Eve (Wagstaff). There’s a running joke of her puncturing his completely bogus claim to be a Colonel; even when he points out that it’s in effect a stage name—in the same way that Jimmy later adds an ersatz “Doctor” to Torg’s name—she’s witheringly derisive about it.
Willie: “What if I was christened ‘Colonel’?”
Eve: “I doubt if you was christened at all.”
Eve (Elsie Wagstaff) forever gives Willie (Frederick Burtwell) a hard time.
The other running joke is her successful scotching (so to speak) of his every attempt to soften the blows of cruel existence with a covert snifter or a clandestine sprint to the pub. It’s during one of these altercations that we sense the genesis of a routine used in a much later movie. Says Eve, “If ever I catch you squandering your money again on alcohol, Colonel Wainwright, I shall thrash you” . . . and at that point a horse whinnies offstage, as if in fright. The context, the timing and even the whinny are near identical to the regular reaction to mention of Frau Blücher’s name in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974).
When talking of the support cast, we shouldn’t neglect various members of Reco Brothers’ Circus. Reco was a small to medium touring circus outfit of the day, much as the fictional Danton’s Empire Circus is meant to be, and the movie’s makers borrowed the Reco hardware and a number of acts (and, I suspect, a number of audiences); an odd effect of this is that Danton’s seems to have a lot more personnel during performances than it does at other times—where, for example, do the dozen glamorous babes who present the synchronized cycling act go when they’re not in the ring? But the laurels among the circus personnel definitely go to the clowns, especially to the low-wire performance presented by one of them (identified in dialogue as, I think, Reco), which is both hilariously funny and really quite extraordinarily skilled—more so, perhaps, than those of the stand-ins for Crawford and Farrar on the high wire and trapeze.
Reco Brothers was a major subject of Lady Eleanor Smith’s book British Circus Life (1948), with additional contributions by John Hinde and W.J. Turner. There are plenty of copies on sale at AbeBooks UK.
The Dark Tower’s editor was Terence Fisher, later to become one of the most celebrated horror directors of the latter part of the last century. His name was practically synonymous with that of the studio House of Hammer. It has to be said, however reluctantly, that the editing here is not of the best.
The movie’s opening credits acknowledge the Kaufman/Woollcott melodrama The Dark Tower, first produced in 1933 on Broadway; they even specify that the movie’s based on Sam H. Harris’s production of that play—i.e., its Broadway production. The play had been earlier adapted for the screen as The MAN WITH TWO FACES (1934) dir Archie Mayo, with Mary Astor, Louis Calhern and Edward G. Robinson. Fair enough. As far as I can establish, however, the movie The Dark Tower bears almost no relation whatsoever to the play beyond the coincidence of title and the idea that a man’s hypnotic hold over a woman can be broken only if he dies, or if she believes that he dies. Here’s a brief plot summary of The MAN WITH TWO FACES from (humble koff) the largest film noir encyclopedia in the English language:
. . . Broadway actor/director Damon Wells (Robinson), to free actress sister Jessica (Astor) from vile husband Stanley Vance (Calhern), disguises himself as a stage producer called Chautard, and murders the man. The cops can’t solve the case but one, Sgt. William Curtis (David Landau), sticks with it. By the time he confronts Damon, however, he has learned that Vance murdered his first wife and was well on the way to destroying Jessica; he implies the court will be lenient.
It appears the 1934 movie was moderately faithful to the original. In that original, The Dark Tower is the title of the new stage production in which Jessica is to star on her comeback. For the movie The Dark Tower, the title is a complete mystery: there’s not a dark tower in sight, and the phrase is never used. I’ve retained the mention of the play in the credits summary at the head of this entry, but it seems to me that the link is at best woefully tenuous.
Similarly, while the movie’s frequently referred to as a riff on the Svengali story, again the parallels seem dubious—unless one’s going to describe every tale of hypnotists using their powers on attractive women as a Svengali riff.
All of this aside, the movie The Dark Tower should certainly be on the watch list of anyone interested in the development of UK cinema or just in search of a highly enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half. While it’s not quite within the purview of film noir (at least, the UK variant of the genre), it certainly has a noirish feel to it, especially in the scenes where Torg is establishing his control over Miss Mary. And it offers a chance to see the young Herbert Lom at the height of his not inconsiderable powers.