The film’s surreal atmosphere never lets up, slips into an actual nightmare, and ends with a terrifying episode of delirium tremens, the equal of which is only seen in The Lost Weekend. 20th Century Fox built a full carnival in the studio and hired real-life carnies and circus performers to work as extras, adding to the film’s wonderful atmosphere. This community of outsiders is an interesting spin on the familiar noir theme that man is isolated, lonely, and doomed. Power is surrounded by some incredible supporting actors, particularly Joan Blondell and Helen Walker, two unusual female characters that resist the type-casting or character tropes usually seen in noir. Nearly every character in the film shows that life is a sham, a game, a trick perpetrated on the innocent, good natured, and unsuspecting. Pete proves to Stan that even childhood memories, happy thoughts, and family connections can be used to dupe even the cynical, the world-weary, and those who don’t believe themselves to be vulnerable. Even Lilith, a successful psychologist, is manipulating and taking advantage of her patients. As she tells Stan, “It takes one to know one.” She is a true villain and though she is a female character, she cannot be described as a femme fatale. She is something crueler, more rational, with no sexual or overt “female” elements to her deception of Stanton that leads to his insanity and absolute destruction.
There is also an odd element of the sublime present. During his ballroom performances, Stan knows a number of things about his audience members that he could never possibly know, adding an element of the genuinely supernatural into the film. The sweet, good-natured Molly becomes fearful when he starts doing medium work, convinced that they will be punished by God for their flirtations with ghosts and spirits. And intriguingly, Zeena’s Tarot card readings always come true. Fortunately, the script does not attempt to resolve or explain away these elements, adding to the air of surreal mystery that pervades the film.