Nightmare Alley first published by EyeforFilm (1 Dec 2005)
In a traveling carnival, selfish, ambitious Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) attaches himself to the seeress Zeena (Joan Blondell), in order to learn the tricks of the trade, and then elopes with the younger Molly (Coleen Gray) to Chicago, where he performs a successful mind reading act in an upmarket hotel ballroom. Soon he has positioned himself as cultish spiritual advisor to the gullible rich, fleecing them for all they are worth, until he is outmaneuvered and outclassed by his partner in crime, the icy psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), and brought to his inevitable ruin.
Even if its A-picture budget, and the complete absence of cops, gangsters or guns, make it a somewhat deviant member of the genre, there is no denying Edmund Gould’s Nightmare Alley its status as film noir, thanks to the chiaroscuro lighting of Lee Garmes, the lowlife characters and a determinedly bleak worldview. Yet, it is just as obviously a tragedy, following its deluded anti-hero on a path of hubris, where what rises too high must come crashing down, and there is no further down to go than the carnival geek, reduced to biting the heads off live chickens in return for a regular supply of alcohol and somewhere to sleep it off.
From the instant near the beginning when Stanton expresses his fascination and revulsion with this exploited, bestialised figure (“Is the guy born that way? I can’t understand how anybody could get so low”), it is clear exactly where the protagonist is headed. The film’s original script ended with him being asked if he could handle the job of geek, and declaring, in a moment of horrific self-knowledge, “Mister, I was made for it.” Unfortunately (if no doubt rightly), Fox’s production chief Darryl Zanuck thought this was too downbeat a conclusion to meet with the approval of the Production Code and so insisted upon the addition of a redemptive coda, but even with this, Nightmare Alley is one of the very darkest of Hollywood noirs.
Tyrone Power personally bought the rights to William Lindsay Gresham’s pulp novel from 1946 and shepherded the project from start to finish, all as part of his bid, begun with The Razor’s Edge (1946), to become more than just a screen heartthrob. Ultimately, his attempts to be taken seriously as an actor failed and he returned to playing romantic leads, but his performance in Nightmare Alley is unquestionably the best of his career. His physical deterioration from dapper arriviste to self-loathing, blear-eyed drunkard shows just how far he was willing to go to demolish the image that had made him famous.
Τhe real highlight of the film is Walker’s turn as the femme fatale Lilith, whose very name encodes a feminine independence that is, at least for a certain kind of man, monstrous. Spending half the film dressed in masculine attire and coolly playing Stanton much as he plays his “chumps”, she is more than a match for the overreaching con artist and the scene in which she finally reveals (or at least half-reveals) her hand is unimaginably calculated, leaving the viewer to feel as confused and manipulated as Stanton himself. The poor “mentalist” knows that he has been beaten at his own game and it is a blow to his masculine confidence from which he can never recover.
Before Nightmare Alley, Freud-loving cinema had treated the profession of psychology with reverence, but here for the first time it is depicted as an elaborate scam, more sophisticated, if no less manipulative, than carnival showmanship. Just as cynical is the portrayal of religion. For it insidiously collapses the distinction between devout faith and misplaced credulity, pious sermonising and a trickster’s charlatanism. Even if, in an apparent sop to prevailing Christian ideology, Stanton’s fall is partially framed as a divine punishment for his pseudo-priestly posturing, really the only “genuine” supernatural power on show comes not from the pulpit, but from a tarot deck. No wonder the film was already provoking letters of complaint from religious interests even before its release.
First under-promoted by a nervous studio, then lost for decades in a legal dispute over distribution rights, Nightmare Alley has acquired a cult reputation amongst fans of film noir that has only been enhanced by its enduring unavailability. Now that it has at last been released on DVD, and in a newly restored high-definition transfer to boot, it is possible once again to come face to face with your inner geek.
Alongside Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932), this is a brilliantly grim assessment of humanity’s place in the cruel circus of life.
© Anton Bitel