London, by the docks early one morning, and a security van carrying a fortune is making its way through the near-deserted streets. But not everyone is elsewhere, for there is a gang of ne'erdowells planning to halt the vehicle as it crosses a bridge: they place a diversion sign on the road which stops the driver and the car following it, whereupon the criminals pounce and knock out the policemen, then hijack the van. However, one of the guards (Victor Maddern) is a working for the robbers, and in a moment of panic shoots his colleague when he tries to get away...
The stories of Edgar Wallace were very big business in Germany for decades, so naturally there were a host of adaptations for film and television, and luckily Wallace was incredibly prolific so there was little chance of the adapters running out of material for a long while. British producer Harry Alan Towers was no stranger to the benefits of riding a wave of lucrative enterprises, and was no slouch at churning out the scripts, so making a Wallace mystery or two wasn't going to be a huge effort for him, relatively speaking. A co-production between British and West German companies, the results have proven surprisingly durable.
What Circus of Fear was not was a horror film in the vein of Circus of Horrors or Berserk! from the same decade, it was far more of a thriller as you would notice immediately from the heist which opened the movie. A bonus here was some nice colour footage shot on location, whether it be of the capital or the motorways and countryside surrounding it, which for some viewers might be more interesting than trying to work out who the killer was. Still, that did not stop this being marketed as a horror flick thanks to the presence of a certain Christopher Lee, playing the lion tamer in the titular circus and donning a mask thanks to his character's unfortunate close encounter with one of his animals.
So Mr Lee spent most of his appearance sporting that covering, in more ways than one because Circus of Secrets might just well have done as a title for the scheming that went on here. But what did the big top have to do with the robbery we watched at the beginning? That took its own sweet time in being revealed, which might have seen some audiences getting restless while others may be more intrigued. What we did know was that when Maddern's double-crosser got an ear-bashing from his boss he was instructed to take the money out to a contact in the countryside, which he did, and then got a knife in his back for his trouble. So who killed him? Someone from the circus, one had to assume.
Cut to that circus and Klaus Kinski loitering there, claiming to be looking for a job though they're not hiring. If Herr Kinski is present, you have good reason to believe someone's up to no good, and his stony visage may be giving nothing away but he did add a note of unease to what could have been a straightforward police procedural. Yes, the cops were involved too: Inspector Elliott (Leo Genn) is on the case, with his superior Cecil Parker (apparently breaking in his new dentures) breathing down his neck to get this one solved and pronto as the public clamour for an arrest. Also of interest was Suzy Kendall, a "guest star", playing one of the performers in a leotard, and little Skip Martin as the ironically-named Mr Big, a familiar face in such affairs; German viewers may better recognise the cast members of their country. While nothing special, there was something pleasing in the way this was complex but not completely baffling, so you might not remember it much, but it was fine while you were watching it. Music by Johnny Douglas.