by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Ring of Fear, a really peculiar 1954 production by John Wayne (though he’s not in the movie) and Robert Fellows for Warner Bros. release, included in the batch of Wayne-produced films his estate recently sold to Paramount for home video distribution. It’s a movie as schizophrenic as its main character, Dublin O’Malley (Sean McClory), who before World War II worked in the circus owned by Clyde Beatty (whose name throughout the movie is pronounced “BEE-tee,” not “BAY-tee”), only he ended up receiving a head wound during combat on Iwo Jima and turned into a homicidal maniac. Three psychiatrists at a mental institution where he’s being held examine him and decide he’s still crazy when they catch him with a photograph of a female circus performer, Valerie St. Dennis (Marian Carr), whom he says was his girlfriend until she married someone else, but he refuses to give any details. Instead he escapes — absurdly easily, cold-cocking anyone who gets in his way with fight moves he seems to have learned from watching John Wayne (or at least Yakima Canutt) movies — and hides out in the Beatty circus until midway through the movie, when he reveals himself and asks for (and gets) back his old job as circus director.
What makes this movie as schizophrenic as its main character (even though the way the character is depicted his mental illness does not seem to be schizophrenia, albeit it’s referred to that way in the dialogue) is that half of it is a standard-issue movie about a circus, emphasizing the sheer joy and fun popularly associated with this form of entertainment, while half of it is a fairly dark thriller about an individual who’s both superficially charming and deeply crazy. Apparently O’Malley nurses a grudge against Clyde Beatty (though since Beatty saved his life from a wild animal there doesn’t seem to be any rational — or irrational, for that matter — reason for O’Malley to hate the man) and an even bigger (and a bit more understandable) one against trapeze star Armand St. Dennis (John Bromfield, undoubtedly with a double from one of Beatty’s usual troupe filling in for him during the stunts), the man his girlfriend married and with whom she’s had a daughter. Beatty (playing himself) notices that his circus is meeting with a series of accidents — or are they accidents? — and to help investigate he calls in, of all people, Mickey Spillane, creator of Mike Hammer, whom we’re supposed to believe is really a detective rather than just a guy who wrote about them.
Various things go wrong, including an improperly tied rope that sends Armand crashing to earth in the middle of a big stunt — though he grabs the tent pole and slides down safely even while working without a net — and Beatty and Spillane (playing himself and doing so in a rather rough-hewn but still charming way even though it’s hard, to say the least, to imagine the creator of Mike Hammer behaving so boyishly in real life) trace the sinister doings first to an alcoholic clown named Twitchy (Emmett Lynn) and then, after Twitchy is found murdered (drowned in a tub of water with a bottle of 160-proof rum next to him to give the impression that he drank himself to death), to O’Malley. It’s an engaging movie despite the wrenching rapidity and lack of logic with which it cuts between jolly circus movie and sinister psycho thriller — and it doesn’t help that all the circus acts we see staged are shot with the cameras miles away and with little or no editing, as we’d see them from a good seat in the circus tent. It’s nice to see Pat O’Brien playing the circus’s business manager — even though it’s a pretty nothing role (odd that with Beatty and Spillane first- and second-billed, respectively, the highest a real honest-to-goodness professional actor can get in this movie is third!) — and even more amazing that Wayne’s pet writer, James Edward Grant (for quite a while, if you wanted Wayne for your movie you’d have to hire Grant to rewrite the script), is not only co-credited with the script (with Paul Fix and Phillip MacDonald) but is the director of record as well (though imdb.com says William A. Wellman co-directed — believable, since some of the scenes involving the psycho seem to have a lot more power and cinematic interest than one would expect from a fellow like Grant — and they also claim Mickey Spillane had a hand in the script, also believable since after all his greatest fame was as a writer and his real-life reputation in that regard is a major plot point in the film).
It’s an odd movie, entertaining (especially when Sean McClory is onscreen pouring on the charm as cover for his true nature) and a real novelty number from a time when circuses were a much more mainstream entertainment than they are today, but rather than portray the madman-in-the-circus theme for the obvious ironic potential, the film just cuts back and forth between jollity and mayhem and gets nowhere pretty fast. It’s also a nice movie in that it was shot in CinemaScope (the original intent was to do it in 3-D, and some of that intent seems to have survived in all the shots of tigers charging the camera lens) and recorded in stereophonic sound — and while only a few of the 1954 prints were in stereo (it required a projector equipped to read magnetic as well as optical soundtracks), fortunately the version we were watching had the stereo sound and it was quite effectively used.