Monday, September 26, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass: Brno, Czechoslovakia

I missed Switzerland last week, but I'll make up for that later this week. This week the scheduled stop is Czech Republic, but because this blog more often than not takes you into the past via books long out of print we are time travelling to Czechoslovakia and the days of the Cold War. Our stop is just outside of Brno where we join the Cernik Circus as they prepare to flee the communist regime and make a daring escape (breaking many laws along the way thus qualifying for a crime novel rather than a mere adventure novel) into Austria. The book is Man on the Tightrope (1952) by Neil Paterson, made into a far better movie of the same name directed by Elia Kazan with an exciting screenplay by Robert E Sherwood. This will be a side by side review and contrast of the book and the film.

The book is a slight one. Dubbed a short novel it's a very quick read at only 135 pages and large type. It was an expansion of a magazine article by Neil Paterson titled "International Incident" and was inspired in part by the escape of Circus Brumbach from East Germany to West Germany in 1950.  Paterson has changed his circus to one in Czechoslovakia that happens to be travelling in the vicinity of the Austrian border and dedicates his book to all Czech people who has managed a cernik. I tried to find out if this is a slang term in Czech, but came up with nothing. Perhaps some linguist who stumbles across this article might be able to clue me in if Paterson chose Cernik as the name because it means something else. Please drop a line if you know.

While Man on a Tightrope is a fast paced story about the circus owner, his family, a run-in with the Czech police and a rival circus owner there really isn't much to the book. The actual escape is not even described. The escape plans are mentioned twice in dialog prior to the actual escape, but the escape itself occurs offstage. The characters, apart from Cernik himself and a well drawn portrait of his rival, Heinrich Cheb, who owns the only other travelling circus in Czechoslovakia, are little more than sketches or ideas of characters. The reader knows only names and their role as performer in the circus, or their relation to Cernik's family and very little else. While there should be ample opportunity to explore the dichotomy of an entertainment world existing in a Communist regime and all the pitfalls of living a nomadic life in what amounts to a police state Paterson chooses not to comment on that part of the story at all.

In contrast, the screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood who adapted Paterson's brief book skillfully adds numerous scenes filled with intriguing ideas and also shows us the escape. It is after all cinema - pictures and action should tell the story. Sherwood fleshes out the relationship between Cernik (commandingly portrayed by Fredric March) and his seemingly idle and trampy wife (sultry Gloria Grahame exuding sex appeal as she always does); adds an idyllic romance between Foster (renamed Vosek in the film and energetically played by Cameron Mitchell) and Cernik's daughter (a rebellious and feisty Terry Moore); and adds the much needed tension between the circus performers and the Communist government - especially a brilliant scene in which the Ministry of Propaganda reprimands Cernik for not adding their disinformation into his clown acts instructing the audience on the evils of capitalism.

Terry Moore as Tereza defies her stern father Cernik (Fredric March)
The movie uses most of what occurs in the book but rearranges the order slightly altering them. The film stresses the reasons that the circus needs to leave, underlines the oppressive life in Czechoslovakia with some brief and sometimes powerful scenes. The opening sequence where a police cordon forces the circus troupe and their caravans and cages of animals off the road so that speeding trucks carrying Czech dissidents marked with giant X's on the backs can be taken away no doubt to some prison or camp sets the mood perfectly and prepares the viewer for the domineering and bullying communist bureaucrats who will appear often to cause trouble for Cernik and his performers.

Cernik must contend not only with the oppressive government but dissension among his own employees. Zabek, the leader of tent men (somber and forboding Richard Boone) reminds Cernik that their are the labor force of the circus, the ones who are doing real work; the rest of the circus is made up of libertines and performers who do little to benefit the people's government. He also points out that the circus is no longer owned by Cernik in this new world, it is the property of everyone. More obstacles arise as the escape plan is overheard by an embittered employee who informs Cernik's rival Heinrich Cheb (in the movie renamed Barovic and played with showman-like gusto by Robert Beatty).  Cheb then bargains with Cernik allowing the escape to take place without informing the police if only he can have tents, seating and a few animals.

The climax of the film is the escape itself and all members of the circus must do their best to distract both Czech and Austrian military personnel when they get to the border. It's a interesting blend of surreal circus entertainment and chaotic gunfire when the entire troupe makes a break for the border. There are acts of surprising heroism and sacrifices that must be made. After reading the book and having been robbed of the thrilling escape sequences it was rewarding to see Kazan, Sherwood and the remarkable cast pull off with skillful suspense what any book about an escape should never omit. I highly recommend finding the movie and watching it rather than reading the book. The film is more intelligent, more dramatic, and more suspenseful than Paterson's slight cheat of an escape adventure.

For other adventures in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic please visit Mysteries in Paradise, our host blog for this Grand Tour of crime fiction throughout Europe.


  1. Thanks for this lovely review/summary John. I like a bit of time travel too

  2. John: I cannot think of the last time I watched a movie that was better than the book. I just saw The Lincoln Lawyer movie. It was pretty good but not near the quality of the book.

  3. When the "book" is really a short story with lots of padding there is plenty of room for improvement. I enjoyed seeing the many differences and embellishments that greatly enhanced the story.

    The only thing I thought that was better in the book was the scene between Cernik and Cheb. Cheb comes in knowing that he will bargain with Cernik but first leads him to think that he will turn him in. Then he proposes that the two fight to make it more realistic that he "allow" Cernik to continue with the escape plan. In the book Cheb uses this staged fight to get out all of frustrations, anger and hatred of Cernik. In the movie is it Cernik's idea that they fight and it becomes a comic scene instead of one of violent hatred expressed by Cheb.

  4. I'm surprised you doon't mention Josef Skvorecky in a discussion of Czech crome writing, or crime novels set in Czech Lands. The Miracle Game is a major novel about life in a country under a totalitarian government and a superb detective story too.

  5. I don't write about ALL Czech crime writers for this reading challenge. I chose to write about one book set in Czechoslovakia and one book that I was interested in reading. That it also turned out to be a movie was an added bonus since I'm an avid crime movie and thriller movie buff. Besides, someone who is also participating in this challenge already covered the book you refer to. Visit his blog and his review on The Miracle Game here.

  6. Most interesting, John. I've been interested to see the film for some time now but wasn't sure if it would actually be my thing. Having read your piece here, I like the sound of it more - it's fairly easy to get on DVD here in Europe so I've just bumped it up the queue. Thanks.