Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has just been asked to play a DVD reviewer sleuth in a 3-D movie.
"I think you're mad."—Dublin O'Malley
Did you know that Mickey Spillane really was a circus trampoline artist and a detective in real life? Look it up on Wikipedia if you don't believe me. So naturally his first acting gig features him as a detective working for a circus who just happens to be named Mickey Spillane.
The Mike Hammer novels (which started with 1947's I, The Jury) made Spillane a celebrity (Illustrated by one scene in which he interrupts a man reading one of his novels with a "How do you like that book?"). This movie introduces a screen persona that served him well as he played Hammer in The Girl Hunters and tackled the character of Mickey Spillane once again in Miller Lite commercials. He's not the only celebrity from another walk of life who plays himself in Ring of Fear: lion tamer and circus owner Clyde Beatty plays a lion tamer and circus owner who calls in Hammer—er, Spillane—after a series of suspicious accidents. Karl Wallenda makes an appearance on the trapeze as well, but he's uncredited here.
You might guess from the way some of the scenes with lurking tigers or daring trapeze action look that this movie was intended as a 3-D movie. You'd be right—though it turned out to be two-dimensional, both in the filming and the content.
Facts of the Case
Dublin O'Malley (Sean McCrory, Them!) is up for discharge from the asylum when we see him first—or would be if the psychiatrists in charge weren't worried about his fascination with a photograph of a circus performer, a woman he once loved. "If this be lunacy, a fence would have to be built around the universe," he tells them to no avail.
When O'Malley overpowers a guard and steals a truck to escape, he quickly shows that he has no compunction about killing. He murders a man dressed in his clothes to put the police off the scent. O'Malley also has murderous intentions towards Clyde Beatty, for which he enlists the reluctant aid of a broken-down clown named Twitchy (Emmett Lynn, The Ten Commandments), who himself escaped a murder rap.
Still, O'Malley says he's not a lunatic. "In the King's English, a lunatic is a person who acts without a motive. I have a motive," he says, clarifying his position.
O'Malley also has intentions for Valerie St. Dennis (Marian Carr, Kiss Me Deadly), the circus performer and ex-lover in question. Never mind that she's married by now, to fellow trapeze artist Armand St. Dennis (John Bromfield, Sorry, Wrong Number). He's making the "vile inference" that their daughter has a nose with an Irish tilt to it, an inference that Armand is slow to pick up on.
Soon, the Clyde Beatty Circus is plagued by a series of suspicious accidents which the resident fortune teller pegs to a "jinx." Beatty calls in none other than Mickey Spillane to put the Hammer on the circus saboteur.
Mickey Spillane is an unabashed ham as he quips and talks tough. He's not particularly convincing as a steely shamus, especially since the script has him disregarding O'Malley as a possible suspect, then abruptly switching gears to focus on him Columbo-style. Still he keeps it fun. He gets plenty of chances to trade banter with the ladies, such as this exchange with a sword-swallowing beauty:
"Hello, Mr. Spillane. Are you married?" she begins subtly.
"It slips my mind at the moment. Glad to have met you," he answers, walking away as her eyes follow him in puzzlement.
"That's a new answer," she says.
Clyde Beatty sticks to what he knows best—taming lions in the center ring. The ending to the picture gives both men a chance to show their stuff.
Even so, the movie belongs to Sean McCrory, a member of John Wayne's stock company. As Dublin O'Malley, he seems charming and disarming, yet gives the knowing audience a sense of foreboding, even before showing his hand as a killer. His performance is theatrical, yet makes the gradual upping of the ante seem natural. There's not much suspense here, but McCrory keeps the movie moving forward and keeps the story watchable, if not believable. You'd think the circus paymaster might notice that he's been declared dead, for starters, or that a sharp shamus like Spillane might tumble onto Valerie's reactions to his innuendos a bit earlier.
As Valerie, Marian Carr shows off her figure a lot, often wearing her leopard-print trapeze costume around the circus. It's a figure that might have been the center-ring attraction if the film had been done in 3-D. She's not a screamer, but has an understated look of terror that gets the message across. John Bromfield as Armand seems naturally oblivious as O'Malley starts to get under her skin, then goes into typical B-movie hero mode.
You'll get more laughs (unintended) from the corny, earnest narration that begins and ends Ring of Fear than you will from the comic relief, played by Pedro Gonzales Gonzales (Rio Bravo). His malaprops and cowardice, plus a kangaroo-boxing scene, are more embarrassing than funny.
There's a little fading in the picture, but the transfer is good, letting us see all the long scenes of circus life and performances that make this picture as much a travelogue as a thriller. The sound came through serviceably, creating the ambience of circus life.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This thriller is, in a word, predictable. You'll expect every move Dublin O'Malley makes, including his final, fatal mistake. It's really just an excuse to show off the Clyde Beatty Circus through performances and lingering glances on those attractive showgirls and female performers.
This lightweight antique vehicle has a good performance by McCrory, preserves footage of Clyde Beatty and other circus stars in action. I can't imagine that a fluffy flick like this would have made it today, but it was fun.
Not guilty. If you're intrigued by the description, you'll want to check it out. If nothing else, you'll know what to say if you're on the receiving end of a romantic approach from a lovely lady sword swallower.
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