Five Men in a Circus

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Dan Sallitt

Jul 22, 2009, 6:28:21 PM7/22/09
to NaruseRetro,
FIVE MEN IN A CIRCUS (1935) seems more interesting in retrospect than
it did while I was watching it. The story, of a band of itinerant
musicians who arrive in a small town at the same time as a traveling
circus, is a loose concatenation of five or six subplots, most of
which are so slight that resolution is optional. Much of the film's
business is openly comic and not always sophisticated, and the
transitions between subplots are casual to a fault.

The near absence of plot throws Naruse into the Fordian mode that he
would exhibit again in TRAVELING ACTORS (MOTHER, in a different way,
also evokes Ford), and most of the film's best moments are quiet
evocations of small-town ambience, or interactions filmed in long
shots and set in unexpectedly imposing natural settings. Near the
end, one of the subplots takes center stage and inspires Naruse to a
display of pure, subversive pessimism. The most sensitive of the
musicians dreams of becoming a serious violinist, and leaps at the
opportunity to play violin as a circus variety act, though he is
warned that the rural audience may not be receptive. As it happens,
the audience's brutal reaction is so ego-shattering that the
enthusiastic response of the circus owner's pretty and admirable
daughter somehow doesn't seem enough of a compensation. Naruse uses
this painful scene to transform a traditional ending - the farewell on
the road, with the owner's daughter waving goodbye to the departing
musicians - into a tense, carefully managed duel between the pleasure
promised by genre expectations and the grim logic of the director's

I can't link to it at the moment, but I think that Michael Kerpan
wrote about this film in an earlier, closed thread titled "The Ones
That Got Away."
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Jul 22, 2009, 8:49:57 PM7/22/09
to NaruseRetro
My original comment:

I re-watched this recently -- and found myself more impressed than I
had been the first time through. No, the plot didn't seem any more
substantial, but I scarcely cared. The depiction of the characters and
their environment was rich enough to make up for any structural
flimsiness. I suspect there is still a lot more to be found in this
film in subsequent viewings.
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