Then Playing — Man on a Tightrope; Take a Giant Step; Witness to Murder

Man on a Tightrope (Elia Kazan, 1953). The oddity from Elia Kazan takes place in Czechoslovakia and follows a circus operator (Fredric March) who chafes against the oppressive Communist government that nationalized his traveling troupe. With a few similarly disgruntled cohorts, he secretly plots an escape from his now-oppressive homeland and various interpersonal issues distract him, including the roving eye of his wife (Gloria Grahame). Setting aside the icky timing of the film’s thumping ire against the evils of Communism arriving a year after Kazan’s contemptible cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee, Man on a Tightrope is an effectively taut thriller of political circumstance, if one that occasionally gives in to potboiler contrivances a little too often. Both March and Grahame give strong performances that almost distract from how horribly retrograde, even for the era, the solution to their martial discord is.

Take a Giant Step (Philip Leacock, 1959). This affecting drama, adapted from a Louis P. Peterson play (Peterson is co-credited on the screenplay, with Julius J. Epstein), begins with a seventeen-year-old Black high school student (Johnny Nash) getting tossed out of school after complaining about the way slavery and the U.S. Civil War were being taught. (That this dramatic starting point could be used today without changing a single detail doesn’t feel great.) Carrying justifiable anger, further heightened by teenaged hormones, he rebels against the responding disapproval of his parents by testing his boundaries for carousing. Director Philip Leacock is impressively forthright in his handling of the subject matter, making it clear that unfairness and exploitation are woven through the lives of these character. There are some dandy performances from the supporting players, including Ruby Dee as the family housekeeper and Pauline Meyers, Royce Wallace, and Frances Foster as a trio of experienced gals our hero encounters in a bar. Take a Giant Step is a solid piece of filmmaking, and even more than that for its era. It represents a rare early understanding that there are a lot of stories ignored by that mainstream that are absolutely worth telling.

Witness to Murder (Roy Rowland, 1954). United Artists kept themselves a step ahead of Alfred Hitchcock by rushing this thriller about a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) who witnesses a murder in the apartment across the way while looking out her window one night, getting to theaters about four months before the Master’s superficially similar Rear Window. Roy Rowland is no Hitchcock, but he does well enough with the basics. Mostly, he can just lean back and let Stanwyck go. She stews and storms against a law-enforcement system that’s inclined to dismiss her insistent as the hysterics of a gal with an overactive imagination, especially since the fingered cad (George Sanders) is so clearly educated and refined. Witness to Murder is a crack entertainment with just enough anti-chauvinism sentiment to give it an added spirit of lurking feminist insurrection against an exhaustingly condescending patriarchal system.

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