The 1943 Warners British production claims to be a based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woolcott previously filmed as The Man With Two Faces – but the only element carried over seems to be hypnotism as a plot device, in that this circus-set melodrama is essentially an update of Trilby (as is acknowledged by the frequent references to the villain as ‘a new Svengali’) whereas the earlier film was a good/bad twin mystery with only minor mesmerism. It’s one of those thrillers which seems so certain of its morality that it emerges as seriously skewed.
Unshaven Stephen Torg (Herbert Lom), whose very name suggests we’re expected to hate him, begs for work at a struggling circus run by the Dalton Brothers, Phil (Ben Lyon) and Tom (David Farrar), but is turned away until he demonstrates hypnotic prowess by calming a runaway lion – whereupon he gets hired, and exerts his glowing-eyed power over Tom’s aerialist partner Mary (Anne Crawford), enabling her to perform a supposedly tricky stunt without a parasol. This simple act somehow turns around the circus’s fortunes, and Torg starts arrogantly buying flash new clothes and spending £40 on a roadster, which sets the supporting cast a-mutter, then parlays his importance to the show into a partnership with the brothers. When Tom clocks him one, Torg reacts by persuading Mary to drop him during their turn – which lays Tom up with broken legs. The assumption is that the hypnotist, about whom little is known (he claims to have learned mesmerism after being bullied for his small stature in an orphanage), is so obviously evil we fully understand why most of his circus co-workers, whose jobs he has single-handedly saved, not only hate him but constantly remind him of the fact.
However, this is what happens in the finale: Torg is using his power to help Mary perform a tricky high-wire stunt before a huge audience, when Tom (supposedly the hero) calls out and breaks her concentration, so that Torg has to use extra hypno-powers to prevent her from falling to her death. Then, Torg is killed – Phil cuts a rope to plunge him to his death, but it turns out attempted murder isn’t a crime in this film’s universe since lady sharpshooter Dora Shogun (Josephine Wilson) shot the victim through the head while he was falling in order to take the onus of guilt off the boss so the show can go on. So, after the matey good guys have nearly killed the heroine, they club together to kill the one man who has saved them all – and we’re supposed to be happy about it! Part of the problem is that Lom’s baddie is so plainly the most interesting character in the film, surrounded by cheery stereotypes, that we wind up sharing his resentment of the normals he sneers at and comes to treat as lesser mortals. Another is that it never sells its plot points – we get the usual reams of circus act footage featuring folks in disguise (a tightrope clown), but not until the climax do we see Torg in action in the ring and yet we’re supposed to accept that he’s the sole reason the circus has become a hit.
William Hartnell does good things with the role of a stuttering press agent who becomes more fluent when he has something to boost – with little scripted material, Hartnell finds depths to the character (he’s in love with the sharpshooter but never mentions it, and is the only person to show any uncoerced sympathy for Torg). Frederick Burtwell, however, is blusterily obnoxious as the ringmaster who goes out of his way to be vile to ‘the little basket’ and gets knocked over in physical comedy bits that aren’t funny. The title, incidentally, is meaningless – I wonder if it was intended to be The Dark Power, but changed at the last minute after the unusual circus font had been laid out for the onscreen title. Editor Terence Fisher would step up to direct Hammer’s Phantom of the Opera with Lom as another hypnotic showbiz mastermind who dies in a fall saving the leading lady. Directed by John Harlow, who ran to mildly occult melodrama (the British Spellbound, While I Live) but also did a couple of Old Mother Rileys. Scripted by Reginald Purdell and Brock Williams.