4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Ring of Fear: the first psycho circus film noir cloaked in clownface and gumshoes

This wouldn’t be John Wayne’s only time at the circus.

A Mount Rushmore of roustabouts Pat O'Brien, Jack Stang, Mickey Spillane, and the inimitable Pedro Gonzales Gonzales.
A Mount Rushmore of roustabouts Pat O'Brien, Jack Stang, Mickey Spillane, and the inimitable Pedro Gonzales Gonzales.

This week’s circus of thrills was released two years after The Greatest Show on Earth and decades before genre mashups began clotting multiplex screens. By my calculations, Ring of Fear was the first psycho circus film noir cloaked in clownface and gumshoes.

Ring of Fear (1954)

The downgrade from Technicolor to WarnerColor was just the tip of the down-sized iceberg. With the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus already spoken for by Cecil B. DeMille, this shameless knock-off employed the services of the entire Clyde Beatty Circus, aka the second greatest show on earth.

This wouldn’t be John Wayne’s only time at the circus. Before Batjac was born, the production company headed by Wayne and producer Robert Fellows went by the surnames of its two founders. Ring of Fear was the production company’s penultimate production under the Wayne/Fellows banner. (The Duke would later embarrass himself by starring in Circus World.) Wayne/Fellows became Batjac in 1954 after the two men parted company. The film’s three screenwriters all had a John Wayne-John Ford connection: Philip MacDonald, who also produced, wrote the novel upon which The Lost Patrol was based; exuberant character-actor-temporarily-turned-scenarist Paul Fix appeared in The Prisoner of Shark Island, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Hondo, etc.; and for the second and last time in his career, screenwriter James Edward Grant (Angel and the Badman, Donovan’s Reef) took a seat behind the camera. Not pleased with Grant’s cut, Wayne paid William Wellman $100,000 plus a percentage of the profits to re-shoot certain scenes.

We open on a familiar montage of circus trains and colorful wagons overrun with caged wildlife, rolling into town. Dick Tufeld, the cheery voice that launched a thousand coming attractions, delivers the schmaltzy narration — “Deserted fairgrounds will become, as if by magic, a place of laughter and thrills!” — with none of DeMille’s dictatorial gusto. No sooner does the smell of circus peanuts and elephant offal begin wreaking havoc on one’s cilia, than a dissolve transports us to a prison exercise yard and a location-specifying gated sign that proclaims, “State Mental Institution, Maximum Security Division.” A parole hearing is being held inside the prison walls to determine the fate of Dublin O’Malley (Sean McClory, Wayne’s co-star in The Quiet Man) a paranoid schizophrenic who spends his days talking to a snapshot of the Marian Carr (Valerie St. Dennis), the already-spoken-for trapeze artist who gave him the air. (Dublin O’Malley? Why not Leprechaun Sheleighly?) Their current one-sided romance puts a darker twist on the volatile relationship between Gloria Grahame and Lyle Bettger put forth by DeMille..

It seems that once upon a time, O’Malley was the circus ringmaster. During rehearsal, Beatty (as himself) plucked O’Malley from the lion cage just in time to keep his name off the dinner menu. Once the man was out of harm’s way, Beatty had a cathartic chuckle at O’Malley’s expense, the sound of which has since echoed throughout the deranged ringmaster’s every waking hour. Determined to enact revenge, O’Malley decides he’s going to make parole with or without the board’s consent. While being escorted back to his cell, the scorned lunatic waylays a guard and proceeds to make his getaway in the gardener’s truck. In a show of psychopathic mettle — and desperate to get out of his prison blues — O’Malley kills the first rail yard worker he sees. Fortunately for him, both men wore a size 36x32.

Circus manager Frank Wallace (Pat O’Brien) is in a bind. The recent mauling of his ringmaster has left a spot open in the center ring. O’Malley picks the perfect day on which to make his return. In spite of their misgivings (and in the name of advancing the plot) Wallace and Beatty take him back. O’Malley then employs the help of Twitchy (Emmett Lynn), a drunken clown on whom he has the goods. You see, O’Malley isn’t your typical spree-killing madman: he has a motive, a plan to stick it to that giggling jackanape Beatty. So he blackmails Twitchy into setting the big cat free. Plans go terribly wrong. With Beatty in town at the time of the escape, the lion has to be put down. When that fails, Twitchy is instructed to pour hydrochloric acid on the acrobat’s rope. Marian has moved on, and she’s afraid that her jealous husband will find out about her past relationship with O’Malley. And rightly so: what better way to settle the score than a variation on the frayed rope gag that almost claimed Betty Hutton in DeMille’s carny opera?

Talk on the Midway has the show labeled jinxed. Up to his big top in accidents, Wallace hires the services of noted dime-novel criminologist (and best-selling author of Kiss Me Deadly) Mickey Spillane (as himself) to crack the case. When Spillane shows up, the screenwriters assign Vince Barnett the job of bringing the unenlightened in the crowd up to speed on the legend that precedes him. What follows is a laughable crime drama inter-spliced with commercials for the Clyde Beatty circus, topped by welcome comic relief from Pedro Gonzales Gonzales (The High and the Mighty, Rio Bravo). If you can’t resist the temptation to scan through the circus acts (you didn’t hear it from me) there’s enough dopey fun to mollify children of all ages.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

Potato Chip Rock, The Barn, Barona Drags, Oasis Camel Dairy, the Turkey Inn, goat yoga

Reader writer's mash note to Ramona
Next Article

Oceanside city treasurer charged on many fronts

Lobbying for investments, asking staff for contributions, looking at 'inappropriate' material
A Mount Rushmore of roustabouts Pat O'Brien, Jack Stang, Mickey Spillane, and the inimitable Pedro Gonzales Gonzales.
A Mount Rushmore of roustabouts Pat O'Brien, Jack Stang, Mickey Spillane, and the inimitable Pedro Gonzales Gonzales.

This week’s circus of thrills was released two years after The Greatest Show on Earth and decades before genre mashups began clotting multiplex screens. By my calculations, Ring of Fear was the first psycho circus film noir cloaked in clownface and gumshoes.

Ring of Fear (1954)

The downgrade from Technicolor to WarnerColor was just the tip of the down-sized iceberg. With the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus already spoken for by Cecil B. DeMille, this shameless knock-off employed the services of the entire Clyde Beatty Circus, aka the second greatest show on earth.

This wouldn’t be John Wayne’s only time at the circus. Before Batjac was born, the production company headed by Wayne and producer Robert Fellows went by the surnames of its two founders. Ring of Fear was the production company’s penultimate production under the Wayne/Fellows banner. (The Duke would later embarrass himself by starring in Circus World.) Wayne/Fellows became Batjac in 1954 after the two men parted company. The film’s three screenwriters all had a John Wayne-John Ford connection: Philip MacDonald, who also produced, wrote the novel upon which The Lost Patrol was based; exuberant character-actor-temporarily-turned-scenarist Paul Fix appeared in The Prisoner of Shark Island, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Hondo, etc.; and for the second and last time in his career, screenwriter James Edward Grant (Angel and the Badman, Donovan’s Reef) took a seat behind the camera. Not pleased with Grant’s cut, Wayne paid William Wellman $100,000 plus a percentage of the profits to re-shoot certain scenes.

We open on a familiar montage of circus trains and colorful wagons overrun with caged wildlife, rolling into town. Dick Tufeld, the cheery voice that launched a thousand coming attractions, delivers the schmaltzy narration — “Deserted fairgrounds will become, as if by magic, a place of laughter and thrills!” — with none of DeMille’s dictatorial gusto. No sooner does the smell of circus peanuts and elephant offal begin wreaking havoc on one’s cilia, than a dissolve transports us to a prison exercise yard and a location-specifying gated sign that proclaims, “State Mental Institution, Maximum Security Division.” A parole hearing is being held inside the prison walls to determine the fate of Dublin O’Malley (Sean McClory, Wayne’s co-star in The Quiet Man) a paranoid schizophrenic who spends his days talking to a snapshot of the Marian Carr (Valerie St. Dennis), the already-spoken-for trapeze artist who gave him the air. (Dublin O’Malley? Why not Leprechaun Sheleighly?) Their current one-sided romance puts a darker twist on the volatile relationship between Gloria Grahame and Lyle Bettger put forth by DeMille..

It seems that once upon a time, O’Malley was the circus ringmaster. During rehearsal, Beatty (as himself) plucked O’Malley from the lion cage just in time to keep his name off the dinner menu. Once the man was out of harm’s way, Beatty had a cathartic chuckle at O’Malley’s expense, the sound of which has since echoed throughout the deranged ringmaster’s every waking hour. Determined to enact revenge, O’Malley decides he’s going to make parole with or without the board’s consent. While being escorted back to his cell, the scorned lunatic waylays a guard and proceeds to make his getaway in the gardener’s truck. In a show of psychopathic mettle — and desperate to get out of his prison blues — O’Malley kills the first rail yard worker he sees. Fortunately for him, both men wore a size 36x32.

Circus manager Frank Wallace (Pat O’Brien) is in a bind. The recent mauling of his ringmaster has left a spot open in the center ring. O’Malley picks the perfect day on which to make his return. In spite of their misgivings (and in the name of advancing the plot) Wallace and Beatty take him back. O’Malley then employs the help of Twitchy (Emmett Lynn), a drunken clown on whom he has the goods. You see, O’Malley isn’t your typical spree-killing madman: he has a motive, a plan to stick it to that giggling jackanape Beatty. So he blackmails Twitchy into setting the big cat free. Plans go terribly wrong. With Beatty in town at the time of the escape, the lion has to be put down. When that fails, Twitchy is instructed to pour hydrochloric acid on the acrobat’s rope. Marian has moved on, and she’s afraid that her jealous husband will find out about her past relationship with O’Malley. And rightly so: what better way to settle the score than a variation on the frayed rope gag that almost claimed Betty Hutton in DeMille’s carny opera?

Talk on the Midway has the show labeled jinxed. Up to his big top in accidents, Wallace hires the services of noted dime-novel criminologist (and best-selling author of Kiss Me Deadly) Mickey Spillane (as himself) to crack the case. When Spillane shows up, the screenwriters assign Vince Barnett the job of bringing the unenlightened in the crowd up to speed on the legend that precedes him. What follows is a laughable crime drama inter-spliced with commercials for the Clyde Beatty circus, topped by welcome comic relief from Pedro Gonzales Gonzales (The High and the Mighty, Rio Bravo). If you can’t resist the temptation to scan through the circus acts (you didn’t hear it from me) there’s enough dopey fun to mollify children of all ages.

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

DJ Tim Pyles quits 91X-FM - again

New TV show leaves Loudspeaker minus 1 of 3 hosts
Next Article

July is San Diego's driest month

Agaves, crape myrtles
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories Fishing Report — What’s getting hooked from ship and shore From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town The Gonzo Report — Making the musical scene, or at least reporting from it Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Theater — On stage in San Diego this week Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close