Directed By: John Moxey
Starring: Christopher Lee, Leo Genn, Anthony Newlands
Tag line: "The most horrifying syndicate of evil in history!"
Trivia: Though shot in color, the film was released in Germany only in black-and-white
With a title like Circus of Fear, you would assume that, at one point or another, the movie would try to scare the pants off of you. But this particular Circus of Fear is not a horror film; it’s a thriller with a dash of mystery tossed in for good measure, and on that level it does not disappoint.
A team of professional thieves has pulled off a daring morning robbery, stealing hundreds of thousands of pounds from a delivery van as it crossed London Bridge. The only glitch came when their inside man, Mason (Victor Maddern), shot a security guard dead, but despite this setback, the gang was able to get away with the loot. Unfortunately for them, Scotland Yard has assigned Inspector Elliott (Leo Genn) to the case, and before long he’s tracked down every crook save one: the shooter himself, Mason, who was sent to a remote village with a large portion of the cash, to be delivered to the mastermind behind the entire heist (a man none of the thieves have actually met). For his troubles, Mason is stabbed in the back with a specialty knife, one usually used by circus performers, and with that, the mastermind, as well as the briefcase full of cash, seemingly disappear into thin air.
But Inspector Elliott isn’t about to throw in the towel, and when some of the marked bills from the robbery turn up at a small-town clothing store, he sets out to investigate. His search leads him to the winter headquarters of a traveling circus owned by Mr. Barberini (Anthony Newlands). There, the Inspector finds an odd assortment of characters, including the masked animal trainer Gregor (Christopher Lee), whose face was mauled several years earlier by one of his giant cats; and the humorously-named Mr. Big (Skip Martin), a dwarf who specializes in blackmail. The knife-thrower Mario (Maurice Kaufmann) is engaged to his lovely assistant Gina (Margaret Lee), who is having an illicit affair with another man; and Gregor’s niece Natasha (Suzy Kendall) is being wooed by the ringmaster Carl (Heinz Drache), who has more than romance on his mind. And then there’s the mysterious stranger lurking in the shadows (Klaus Kinski), who knows more about the robbery than he’s letting on. Most are eventually questioned by Inspector Elliott, and even though none admit to having the money, the longtime policeman realizes he’s close to cracking the case when the circus performers themselves start turning up dead.
Circus of Fear gets off to a great start thanks to its intense pre-title sequence, during which we witness the robbery that kicks everything off. The plot thickens once the action shifts to the Circus’s winter lodgings, where Barberini’s employees have a few close calls (Gina, at one point, is chased by a tiger that was let out of its cage) before some are found murdered themselves. In addition to the suspense that these scenes generate, Circus of Fear is a fascinating whodunit, leaving us guessing to the very end who the mastermind might be, and what his motives were for organizing the heist in the first place. The cast is impressive, starting with the normally-reliable Christopher Lee (who spends most of the movie hiding behind a mask), and even though he barely speaks a word, it’s always great to see Klaus Kinski pop up in a film of this sort. The best performance, however, is delivered by Leo Genn, whose Inspector Elliott is not only highly intelligent (he has a knack for figuring things out), but also incredibly patient, remaining calm even when his gruff superior Sir John (Cecil Parker) is screaming for results.
If Circus of Fear has a flaw, it’s that it tosses too many characters into the mix, and then tries to follow their individual stories, some of which fizzle out rather quickly (a subplot involving Carl and Gregor is fairly interesting, but the romantic drama that plays out between Mario and Gina never goes anywhere). This aside, Circus of Fear is an engrossing motion picture that, though not a horror film, has plenty of mystery and intrigue to keep you on your toes.