Nightmare Alley (20th Century Fox, 1947) directed by Edmund Goulding
Tyrone Power was tired of going back and forth as the romantic lead or the swashbuckler (or both) in his movie roles, so he decided to take the plunge into something different, very different. Having worked with director Edmund Goulding one year earlier on The Razor’s Edge, Power felt good about Nightmare Alley, based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham.
Power stars as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, the barker for a sketchy traveling carnival. Although he’s been there awhile, he is both fascinated and repulsed by the carnival’s geek. (You can read about geeks here, but for a truly terrifying definition, watch the extra on the Criterion Blu-ray featuring Todd Robbins, a performer and sideshow historian.) Stan doesn’t understand how someone could allow themselves to sink so low, which leads him to think the same thing about Pete (Ian Keith), an alcoholic who shares a mentalist act with his wife, “Mademoiselle” Zeena (Joan Blondell).
Stan is drawn to the older Zeena, knowing that she could do a better act with a better man if he only had the skills Pete once had. Stan also learns that Pete and Zeena had once been quite famous in vaudeville, relying on a complex code allowing Pete to convey important information about members of the audience to Zeena, making her appear to be a genuine mind-reader. If only Pete would reveal the code... Stan’s ambition begins feeding on the possibilities, and soon he gets his wish, and Pete is out of the way. (Sorry, I won’t tell you how.)
Yet Stan is also attracted to fellow carnival performer Molly (Coleen Gray), but Zeena is the one who knows how to work the code, and anyway, Molly’s boyfriend Bruno the Strongman (Mike Mazurki) is constantly keeping a close watch on Molly.
Most of what happens next is easy to predict, or perhaps not. You’ve seen carnival and mentalist scenes in movies before, and maybe you’ve seen them in real life, so you may encounter few surprises. But Stan encounters plenty of surprises, some of which he’s been living with for a long time. In an attempt to help him, psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) meets with Stan for several sessions. Or is she trying to help him?
Nightmare Alley is a unique film noir, perhaps one-of-a-kind, and certainly an oddity for its time. Although nowhere near as dark as the novel, the film offered a story delving into the darkness not only of the heart, but also love, ambition, and some very deep fear. This was certainly not what most audiences were expecting from the bright and sunny Tyrone Power, especially as the film reached Stan at his lowest. A somewhat upbeat ending mars what could’ve been a complete noir ending, yet it wasn’t enough for 1947 audiences. The film bombed at the box office.
Yet part of what gives the film its power is its suggestion of the novel’s brutality, darkness, and despair. (It will be interesting to see what Guillermo del Toro does along these lines with his upcoming remake, which, of course, will have no Production Code interference.) The performances are outstanding throughout, and there’s one scene in particular between Stan and Lilith that’s simply marvelous. (I would’ve given Helen Walker an Oscar for this scene alone.)