Fredric March plays a 1950s Czechoslovakian circus owner trying to lead his troupe in a daring escape from the Iron Curtain. The plan is to obtain a permit to perform for communist soldiers in the border territories — then create a distraction and make a run for freedom over a narrow bridge into American occupation. At the same time, March’s character is dealing with an adulterous wife (Gloria Grahame), a daughter (Terry Moore) threatening to elope with a mysterious new hired hand, and a rival circus owner’s attempts to steal his circus out from under him.
Director Elia Kazan (East of Eden, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) keeps March in a focused, beleaguered state throughout the film. The specter of communism gives no respite, not even during the movie’s opening circus performance, when unidentified visitors are presumed to be secret police. The political tension works far better in the film than the interpersonal drama March has with his family. Grahame and Moore are stuck in one-note adversarial roles that turn both actors into annoying harpies. Adolph Menjou gets a little more to work with as a communist agent with questionable allegiance, and Robert Beatty is memorable as Barovic, the rival circus owner. Beatty and March share a prolonged confrontation that turns into a wonderful comedic highlight in an otherwise heavy drama/thriller. Many of the circus performers are real ones from the Circus Brumbach, which escaped East Germany in 1950. Their story forms the basis for the film.