Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Edmund Goulding, 1947
Starring: Tyrone Power, Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell, Helen Walker

Stan Carlisle, a newcomer to the carnival, attempts to seduce the local psychic, Zeena, when he learns that she and her alcoholic husband, Pete, have a genius secret code for their act. Though they were once very successful, undisclosed events led to Pete’s extreme alcoholism, their fall from fame, and return to the traveling carnival. One night Stan accidentally gives Pete wood alcohol, believing it is moonshine, and the old man dies. Soon Pete successfully seduces Zeena and tricks her into training him to be part of her act, though he has also begun a relationship with the pretty, young Molly. Thinking that Stan has also tricked Molly, the other carnies force them into a marriage. Afterwards, he begins a high-class traveling act, The Great Stanton, with Molly as his assistant. He accidentally teams up with an equally cynical, greedy psychologist, and works towards his biggest scam yet – which will likely lead to a hard, fast fall.

Nightmare Alley is an unusual approach to film noir and though not regarded as a classic at its time, it’s developed quite a cult following and a renewed critical appreciation. This was largely a labor of love for star Tyrone Power. He was eager to shed the heroic, swashbuckling image created in films like The Black Swan and The Mask of Zorro and persevered until the film was made. Power does give the performance of his career here -- equal only to his duplicitous turn as a wrongly accused murderer in Billy Wilder’s equally gloomy Witness for the Prosecution, the last film of Power’s career. As Stan, Power delivers the full weight of his creative potential as hunter and prey, villain and victim. The plot’s imaginative, frenetic arc charts his rise and fall, mirroring it with the equally fantastic Ian Keith (Queen Christina, Cleopatra) as Pete, the doomed drunk that Stan will eventually become.

Based on a book of the same name by William Lindsay Graham, the novel is apparently even more extreme than the film and is divided up into chapters named after the different Tarot cards. This reminded me somewhat of The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder and based on a novel by Charles R. Jackson. Both novelists – Graham and Jackson – struggled with alcohol addiction and lead often bleak private lives. They both became increasingly ill later in life and committed suicide with an overdose of pills. Graham was allegedly found with a business card that read, “No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired.” His fascinating life crops up quite often in the oddly autobiographical Nightmare Alley: his obsession with carnivals and carnies (he also wrote a non-fiction book about the topic, Monster Midway), his infidelity and failed marriages, interest in spiritualism, and ultimately fatal battle with alcoholism.

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.

Nightmare Alley wasn’t popular upon its release, probably thanks to its morose tone and deeply cynical nature. Though this is yet another noir that targets one of the dark sides of the American dream – unchecked ambition – as man’s downfall, it goes about it in a totally unique way and comes highly recommended. Power’s performance alone is a must-see, though prepare yourself for a compelling and mesmerizing, if less-than-cheery viewing experience. It is available on DVD as part of Fox’s film noir series and, again, you absolutely have to see it if you’re a fan of noir or, surprisingly, horror, as it prefigures a lot of the dark carnival films to come later. It would certainly be fascinating to compare this with Clive Barker's Nightbreed.

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