At the height of his career, Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) was known as one of the greatest trapeze performers around. He’s one of only a few people in the whole world who can do the dangerous triple somersault stunt. During one performance, he attempts the triple somersault, but his timing is off and falls, crippling himself. Even though he could still work as a catcher for a trapeze act, he stays with the circus, but retires into a behind-the-scenes position. Even though Mike is gone from performing, he isn’t forgotten. Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) is a young, aspiring trapeze performer travels from Brooklyn to Paris to see Mike and ask him to teach him to do the triple somersault. At first, Mike turns him down, but then he sees Tino perform. He sees that Tino could be a truly great performer if he worked with him and agrees to come out of retirement to coach him and be the catcher in his act.
The two of them work hard and become very close, Mike even believes Tino could do the triple somersault. They also catch the attention of Lola (Gina Lollobrigida), a trampoline performer. She hasn’t been able to get her act into the circus, but sees Mike and Tino have a great act going and wants to get in on it. She talks to Bouglione, the circus owner, and tells him that she’s going to get into their act, but is told that Mike is never going to let a woman into his act. She sets out to seduce Mike, and although he is charmed, he says no to her being in the act. So then she tries her luck with Tino, who lets her get on the trapeze with him during some downtime. Tino sees she could be good and is also charmed by her. Bouglione thinks audiences would like to see a beautiful girl on the trapeze and decides she will go on with them for opening night, much to Mike’s displeasure. Even though he wants her gone after the first show, she proves to be such a hit with the audience that she stays.
In the audience that night is John Ringling North, who has come to see Mike come out of retirement. Ringling is looking for acts for his circus in New York and makes a deal with Mike that if he can get Tino to successfully do the triple somersault within the next three weeks, he wants both of them for his New York show. But Lola isn’t too thrilled about being left out of the deal and uses her power over Tino to mess with his concentration so he won’t be able to pull off the triple somersault. Mike sees what’s happening and tries telling Tino about what Lola tried with him, but it only drives a wedge between the two of them. To prove how fickle she is, Mike starts coming on to her. But much to his surprise, he realizes that Lola not only doesn’t want to hurt Tino, but he also really does love her. Meanwhile, Bouglione is getting worried that his star trapeze team will leave him for the Ringling show. To ease his worries, Lola tells him that she’ll get Tino to take someone else along as his catcher if he leaves. However, she never has the chance to tell Mike about this plan and he’s very surprised when he is fired before a show and Bouglione wants another catcher to take his place. But since Ringling is in the audience, Mike isn’t about to let all his hard work go to waste. He goes out there anyway and he helps Tino to finally succeed in doing the triple somersault. The crowd goes wild and the press is eager to talk to Mike, Tino, and Lola. Even though Tino says he wants the act to stay together, Mike realizes their relationship is too strained and asks a friend to take his place in New York instead.
If it weren’t for the cast and the spectacular trapeze performance scenes, Trapeze would have been totally unremarkable. The whole movie is worth seeing if only for the trapeze scenes. They were so wonderfully staged, very exciting, and it’s very much worth noting that Burt Lancaster did all his own stunts in those scenes. Before becoming an actor, Burt had worked in a circus so he knew what he was doing up on the trapeze. In this movie, he was just as good in his scenes on solid ground as he was up on that trapeze. There aren’t many actors you can honestly say that about! He and Tony Curtis made a good team, but that wasn’t a terribly big surprise since I loved The Sweet Smell of Success. Without these factors, this would have been just another movie about a love triangle. As it is, though, it may not be an award winner, but it kept me entertained well enough.