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The Juggler

The Juggler(1953)

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teaser The Juggler (1953)

Another neglected oddity from the postwar Hollywood era, when independent productions flourished and on-location filming became a go-to novelty, Edward Dmytryk's The Juggler (1953) is a modest movie fairly oozing with a strange and unique confluence of historical markers. First off, it was the first Hollywood film shot in the newly minted nation of Israel, all of five years old at the time and five years past the first Arab-Israeli War. Produced by Stanley Kramer and starring Kirk Douglas - two of the Industry's highest profile Jewish voices in the years after the war - the film didn't merely utilize Israel for the sake of its story; it's a conscientious advertisement for the nascent nation, which is depicted as one huge, sunny desert sanctuary, populated entirely by solicitous caretakers. On top of that, it was the third low-budget film Kramer gave to Dmytryk, who a few years earlier had become one of the saddest casualties of the HUAC hearings and the Hollywood Red Scare. At first, in the late '40s, Dmytryk refused to testify and was jailed. But then he thought twice, and sat again before the witch-hunters, naming names and reestablishing himself as employable in Hollywood, if not with his scruples and integrity intact.

We're still seven years from the moment Douglas insisted on naming ex-con Dalton Trumbo as the screenwriter of Spartacus (1960), beginning the end for the blacklist. In Dmytryk's case (as opposed to others, such as those of Adolphe Menjou and Elia Kazan), it's hard to be certain and judgmental at this distance, but The Juggler is also a movie so devoid of politics you can smell Dmytryk's apologetic timidity all over it. The story, from a forgotten novel by screenwriter Michael Blankfort (who himself served as a "front" for blacklisted writer Arthur Maltz), confronts a relocated concentration camp survivor (Douglas) unable to overcome his war-borne fears and neuroses, and who is also the titular entertainer/clown/magician. If you've ever wondered whence came the peculiar notion of making films about the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of clowns (Jerry Lewis's still-unseen The Day the Clown Cried [1972], Adam Resurrected [2008]), violinists (Playing for Time [1980]), mimes (The Last Butterfly [1991]), boxers (Triumph of the Spirit [1989]) and comedic buffoons (Jakob the Liar [1999], Life Is Beautiful [1997]), it might've been here. Thank goodness The Juggler features no flashbacks to clown-faced shenanigans in Auschwitz, and generally the film wears its affectation lightly, preferring to focus instead on the manic-depressive tribulations of Douglas's Hans, as he is thrust into the arms of the new Israel but cannot for the life of him trust society in any shape or form.

It's a refugee's tribulation, as Hans climbs off his first Israeli bus to a ma'abarot (immigrant camp) in Haifa and immediately bristles at the hands-on manner of the new system for handling the massive influx of European Jews. There is cause for worry at first, as Hans entertains little refugee kids with a cheesy ventriloquist act, but then, as he passionately, fiercely (as only Douglas could do passionate and fierce) mistakes a transient woman and her children for his own, long-vanished wife and kids, we understand that Hans, for all of his boisterous good humor up-front, is close to being insane. All the new-homeland coddling simply triggers the man's panicky flight mechanism, and Hans runs from the camp, seethingly paranoid and eventually assaulting a cop. From there, Douglas's lost man is a fugitive, indulging the best wishes of Milly Vitale's blonde camp-worker hottie and fleeing from the avuncular if stern pursuit of police captain Paul Stewart.

Douglas, in the kind of role more or less invented by John Garfield back home, is subdued by the film's ulterior propaganda purposes, but any occasion will do for a chance to visit the dangerous realm that is Kirkistan. He's still one of Hollywood's least respected, least beloved stars, and it's easy to see why: he chafes, he spits bile, he's a human dynamo perpetually on the verge of a meltdown. Watching Douglas act in his prime can be harrowing - he's so in your face you can taste his sweat and feel his body heat and fear his possible instability. It's something of a miracle he was a star. In the '50s and early '60s most moviegoers preferred the cool, mild-mannered mountainsides of Lancaster or Wayne or Hudson, but Douglas was for the meat-eaters in the crowd, saying nuts to compromise in film after film and laying bare so much painful hostility and agon that it made Method actors seem positively dainty. There's never been anyone like him.

The Juggler dallies in odd arenas for Douglas, including a supposedly heartwarming mass dance around a giant campfire that can seem a little cultish and creepy nowadays, and the obligatory clown show Hans puts on for relocated children, but rest assured the story winds around to a faceoff in which the tormented pilgrim is trapped in a hyperventilating box of his own existential devising. The film itself manages to sell the Israeli ideal without so much as mentioning Arabs or Palestine's native population; insofar as Israel exists politically as a force in opposition, here it is only battling against the legacies and memories of the Holocaust, a safe and definitive villain safely and definitively vanquished, if still lingering as ghosts in Hans's traumatized brainpan. Whether or not you bristle yourself at the Israeli hard-sell will depend on how you interpret some details, as in when Stewart's investigating cop, addressing a defiant little girl in possession of a photo of Hans, says, "Sometimes for the sake of the law we have to give up our friends." How this astonishing line could have made as much practical sense in Berlin in 1938 (not to mention virtually any Eastern European city during the Cold War, and in the chairs having the HUAC council) is a question left uncomfortably lingering in the air. Coming from the mouth of a sympathetic, New Frontier Israeli policeman, was it a defensive gesture on Dmytryk's part? And how sour does that taste today?

Because of all of the historical compromises that surround it, The Juggler is something of a looking glass on its sociopolitical moment, with all of its betrayals and nightmares and unintended echoes, while meaning to be simply a movie about how wonderful Israel is, and how victims of persecution can find refuge there. As Israeli culture has found in the decades since, life and politics are never as easy as that, and the lines between good and evil, if there are lines at all, are never easy to draw straight.

Producer: Stanley Kramer
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Michael Blankfort (screenplay and novel)
Cinematography: Roy Hunt
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: George Antheil
Film Editing: Harry W. Gerstad, Aaron Stell
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Hans Muller), Milly Vitale (Ya'El), Paul Stewart (Detective Karni), Joey Walsh (Yehoshua Bresler), Alf Kjellin (Daniel), Beverly Washburn (Susy), Charles Lane (Rosenberg), John Banner (Emile Halevy), Richard Benedict (Police Officer Kogan), Oskar Karlweis (Willy Schmidt).

by Michael Atkinson

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