Circus of Fear plays like two films stitched together. One great, one mediocre.
It opens with an armored car rumbling down a London street. Cut to a man aboard a boat approaching the Tower Bridge. He raises his arm to check the time. Zoom in on his wristwatch. It’s just after dawn.
Cut to another wristwatch. Pull back to reveal a man smoking a cigarette in a car. He glances at the rear-view mirror and gives a slight nod. Two linebacker-sized men get out and unload a swath of equipment, including a large coil of thick rope. The car pulls away and speeds across Tower Bridge, stopping on the opposite side. The driver and passenger exit the car, hurry across the road, and hide. Looking down, one of them checks his wristwatch.
Cut to another wristwatch. Pull back to reveal the burly men who exited the car prior. They setup a roadblock to divert traffic, then rush onto the bridge to secure the heavy rope for the group’s escape.
Cut to the armored car approaching. The driver, an inside man, stops just before the bridge. The hidden men, now masked, spring into action. Guns drawn, they force their way inside the armored car and maneuver it across the bridge.
Cut to the Tower Bridge operator. Klaus Kinski sneaks up behind him, knocks him out, drags him back into the control booth, and raises the Tower Bridge.
Cut back to the armored car. With the roadblock diverting traffic on one end, and the raised bridge blocking traffic on the other, the thieves loot the armored car. Using the heavy rope, they zip the cash bags down to a boat waiting below.
It’s a terrific opening. Almost no dialog. Just crackerjack editing and great location photography. Granted, with no sign of a circus or top-billed Christopher Lee, one can imagine theater-goers in 1966 feeling confused. Did the projectionist queue the wrong movie? As if to assure them, the opening titles appear, backed by an oddly catchy theme.
Unfortunately, the entire heist was a McGuffin. All the crooks except Kinski are killed. This was a British-German co-production and Kinski was big in Germany.
The setting shifts to the winter home of the Barberini circus. The pacing slows. Things get talky. Over twenty minutes in, Christopher Lee finally shows up. He plays Gregor, an enigmatic lion tamer who wears a black balaclava to mask his disfigurement. Leo Genn plays a police inspector poking around after the stolen money.
From here, the movie devolves into an unremarkable whodunit. An unseen, knife-throwing assailant picks off potential suspects. There are lots of red herrings and at least one plot twist you’ll see coming.
It’s not a bad movie, but Circus of Fear squanders the talent involved. Director John Moxey can build atmosphere (as the opening heist shows) but the convoluted plot gives him few opportunities. Christopher Lee spends much of his limited screen time wearing a ridiculous hood. And Klaus Kinski's post-heist role sees him reduced to lurking about in the shadows.
It’s frustrating. We may learn the killer’s identity, but the real mystery lies in what the principals could have done with better material.