NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) B/W 110m dir: Edmund Goulding
w/ Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki, Ian Keith
In this terrific film noir, Stanton Carlisle works in a sideshow as assistant to a mentalist, whose tricks he plans to learn so he can leave the carnival to be successful on his own.
The following contains information you may not want to know before viewing the film for the first time:
From the Criterion website (www.criterion.com), "Nightmare Alley: The Fool Who Walks in Motley ..." by Kim Morgan:
"Stanton Carlisle is walking on a precipice. You could call him a seeker --- but he’s a seeker with one eye open and one eye shut. He’s also a heel, a cheat, a selfish son of a bitch. And he knows it: 'I wonder why I’m like that,' he muses at one point. He then admits: 'I'm never thinking about anybody --- except myself.'
"Stanton is disarming. He’s got to be charming, seductive --- it's his stock-in-trade. And that charm helps keep his own tangled self from falling off the cliff --- for now. Because there’s something brewing in Stan. From the start, he seems haunted, drawn to the abyss, gripped by it, even. Immediately, we see that enthrallment. He’s moving through the crowded carnival he works at and stops to take in a horrifying presentation --- the geek. He turns away, right as the 'half man, half beast' is about to accomplish what the spectators have been waiting for. He looks back for a moment when he hears the despairing shrieks of the man --- not a beast but a man. The geek is a tragic down-and-outer, an alcoholic or drug addict tricked into this nightmarish job, biting the heads off chickens, and now sticking to it to get his daily allotment of sweet poison.
"Stan’s carnival boss asks him why he’s watching his appalling draw. Stan says: 'Geek guy fascinates me.'
"This fascination is the world that director Edmund Goulding plunges the viewer into in his 1947 Nightmare Alley, a world where seemingly pleasant, God-fearing folk gawk at a geek for purposes of 'science and education,' and members of sophisticated high society fall for a phony spiritualist’s claims to be able to contact their dead. It’s a grim but recognizable look at human nature --- how people prey on others with their deceptions and how we often wind up deceiving ourselves, sometimes out of greed, sometimes in our attempts at self-illumination, sometimes to run away and lose ourselves. For Stanton Carlisle, played by a magnificent Tyrone Power, all of this is true.
"Nightmare Alley is much like Stanton, coarse and yet elegant; it is an A picture with the gritty, pounding heart of a B. A film noir, but not entirely classifiable as such, it seemed destined to become a cult oddity, even if Twentieth Century-Fox likely wanted to make at least some money from it. It wasn’t a moneymaker --- nowhere near. But then, upon its release, the studio never gave it a chance.
"Within its carnival milieu, Nightmare Alley is a dark, sometimes feverish look at American striving --- specifically in the character of Stanton. The carnies surrounding him aren’t buying into the American dream --- they know how rigged the world is, and they’ll entertain folks or fleece them with a ring toss or a mind reading. The movie offers a complicated set of feelings about all these characters and their differing types of trickery. They can put on a show and amaze an audience --- like beautiful Electra, with sparkling currents passing through her. But then there’s the geek --- subjugated by the most ruthless of carnies --- and even he’ll know when he’s being tricked, poor soul. Within all this, there’s a spiritual dimension at play --- a tale of fate versus the consequence of choice. Carl Jung said: 'Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.' You feel the tension of that maxim vibrating throughout the movie.
"The project was controversial --- some might say cursed --- from the start. And despite Power’s exceptional performance and some good reviews (James Agee wrote that Power 'steps into a new class as an actor'), it was swiftly taken out of theaters, according to Matthew Kennedy’s biography of Goulding, 'gone within two weeks.' A lawsuit between the estate of producer George Jessel and Twentieth Century Fox kept the film out of reach and away from VHS, making it even more coveted through the decades. For years, bootleg copies and prints were watched with gleeful reverence (it was finally released on DVD in 2005).
"The novel the film is based on came to the attention of head of Fox Darryl F. Zanuck by way of Jessel, who, as Kennedy recounts, hadn’t read the work itself but a review of it. Intrigued, he prompted Zanuck to buy the rights. Zanuck was anxious when he read the book; the brilliant, best-selling 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham was full of material that couldn’t make it to the big screen uncensored. It needed a skillful screenwriter to adapt it, digging into everything from carny life and its patois to the relatively new discussion of psychoanalysis. Jules Furthman, notable for his work with Howard Hawks and Josef von Sternberg, fit the bill --- he is adept here at mixing rocky real life with a sense of doom and sheer demented dreaminess.
"The story goes that superstar Power, who had read the novel, wanted this part but had to convince a highly reluctant Zanuck about casting him. Power yearned to expand on his matinee-idol image and showcase his range --- which he certainly possessed. He often felt trapped, even suffocated, by his stardom. As Fred Lawrence Guiles writes in his biography of Power: 'Because of that voice and those looks, Twentieth Century-Fox used all of the superhype they could contrive to chum up the fans. Tyrone called this 'the monster,' and that button-tearing, hair-ripping creature trailed after him everywhere.'
"Nightmare Alley became a passion for Power, and he dug into Stanton with a simultaneous cool reserve and sweaty reality. At the character’s lowest depths, he’s not asking you to feel sorry for him, and at his most charming, he’s not even asking you to like him. His childhood taught him to be tough and manipulative. It’s a beautifully attuned performance --- cruel, conniving, mysterious, bitter, and yet wounded --- canny but also at times naive. He’s the fool wandering the world, seeking his place, yearning for a kind of liberation --- one he’s never going to get.
"Stanton’s first rung in this mad climb for success is Zeena, the 'seer,' an earthy, likable woman. A 'big heart,' Stan says of her. 'Sure, as big as an artichoke. A leaf for everyone,' she responds. Joan Blondell --- who had been in movies since 1930, a pre-Code queen --- is perfectly cast here, both street-tough and vulnerable. She’s a woman who has lived, one who has had regrets and happiness, and one with wit, sex appeal, and soul. You feel both her attraction to Stan and her love and concern for her performance partner and husband, Pete (played by a touching Ian Keith), once a big draw in vaudeville, now a desperate dipsomaniac. And she actually does believe in the tarot --- she didn’t use to‚ but now feels that, through time, the cards have proven to be true --- she's sincere about it. Not everything’s a racket.
"Stan is shrewdly focused on Pete’s code, an intricate word-substitution system for tricking people into believing Zeena’s mind reading. And then he kills him --- with a late-night mix-up of wood alcohol and the moonshine Pete so desperately wants. It’s an accident (but, deep down, is it?), and Stan will be haunted by Pete and the geek for the rest of the picture. Stan leaves the carnival with young Molly (Coleen Gray), who abandons her role as Electra and joins him in working a high-class mentalism racket in Chicago. But the more Stanton climbs, the more haunted he becomes. He talks tough, he’ll smile or smirk or con, but within he suffers terrors and feels the tug of damnation. We sense that he’s strangely exploring and blocking whatever eats at him. When he hatches a con with an elegant but ruthless psychologist, Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), it all falls apart --- terribly. And so down Stan goes --- now a drunk, inching closer to the abyss.
"Though the movie is not directly about alcoholism, it’s at the same time very much about it --- keeping in dark spirit with the novel, if not always to the letter. Addiction presents itself like a creature you shove away, shove into a pit, though all those shiny nightclubs and well-tailored suits and money can’t keep it at bay. As Nick Tosches so beautifully writes in his introduction to the New York Review Books edition of the novel: 'The delirium tremens writhe and strike in this book like the snakes within.'
"Gresham first learned about geek shows while serving in the Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, as he recounts in Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny (1953). There he met Joseph Daniel 'Doc' Halliday (whom he gives the name Clem Faraday in the book), a sergeant of medics, his supervisor, and also 'an old-time carny.' Halliday explained, in detail, the geek cycle to Gresham --- how to spot him, how to 'make' him --- and it stuck with Gresham. 'The story of the geek haunted me,' he writes. 'Finally, to get rid of it, I had to write it out.'
"Gresham himself was a seeker. Born in Baltimore, he moved to Brooklyn at age eight with his family (his parents would later divorce), and as an insecure adolescent he related to misfits. He’d hang around the Coney Island sideshows, taking in the attractions and getting to know the performers, enthralled and often moved by their abilities and sensitivity. He admired them --- they walked an unconventional path in life. He writes in Monster Midway: 'A carnival is one place where eccentricity is not punished as it is in the anthill life of the big corporations.'
"During the course of his life, this complex, reportedly charming, and troubled man would transit through magic, communism, Christianity, Alcoholics Anonymous, Freudian psychoanalysis, the tarot, Dianetics, and more --- abandoning some beliefs while sticking to others in varied forms --- all portals to help him gain insight into himself and the world around him.
"Though he had published work and held a variety of jobs (including Greenwich Village folk singer) before writing Nightmare Alley, that was his first novel and the only one that would attain such acclaim and popularity. He continued writing, impressively: short stories; essays; another novel, Limbo Tower; the magnificent Monster Midway; a biography of Harry Houdini; and a book on bodybuilding. But Nightmare Alley, his masterpiece, remains the one he’s most recognized for. Nevertheless, he still struggled. In his Houdini biography, Gresham writes: 'One of the most destructive experiences a writer can have is to sell a novel to the movies after years of a grinding, hand-to-mouth existence. Like a deep-sea fish, accustomed to the pressures of the deep, when brought to the surface suddenly by a net, he often explodes when the pressure is removed.'
"The money Gresham received from the novel and movie sales was quickly gone: he overspent on too big a house and suffered tax problems. He and his second wife, poet Joy Davidman, divorced. She went on to marry C. S. Lewis (another seeker) --- and Gresham, in turn, married Joy’s cousin Renee Pierce. In 1962, diagnosed with tongue cancer, Gresham registered at the Dixie Hotel in New York, under the name 'Asa Kimball, from Baltimore,' and took his own life. He was fifty-three.
"In his NYRB introduction, Tosches discusses the fusion of Stan and Gresham, stating that they were 'indeed one.' He writes: 'There is a bizarre letter, frayed and torn, preserved in the collection of the Wade Center of Wheaton College, written by Gresham in 1959, when the end was near. In it he wrote: "Stan is the author."'
"Power was drawn to 'the author'/Stan, and appreciated what he called Gresham’s 'tough realism.' To realize this character and his world, the movie needed a director able to mount a big production; able to mix high (showrooms and society) and low (carnivals); and with an unerring eye for actors and characters. Power recommended Goulding, who had just directed him in the successful The Razor's Edge. Multitalented, British-born Goulding had crafted many notable pictures, including the 1932 best picture winner Grand Hotel. He was known more for romance and melodrama --- much of it with outstanding central female performances, especially from Bette Davis, whom he worked with numerous times. Though regarded by some critics as perhaps an odd choice for this material, his ability to manage and balance a complex cast was valuable. He worked closely with the actors (he was known for acting out scenes himself) and let his magnificent cinematographer, Lee Garmes, craft the noirish nightmare and glitz.
"That Goulding worked so well with women is also important to Nightmare Alley, as the portrait of Stanton Carlisle is illuminated by three very different, complicated female figures. Blondell, Gray, and Walker, as Zeena, Molly, and Lilith, are much more than three rungs on the ladder, and even more than the archetypes of tough earth mother, fresh-faced innocent, and femme fatale. They’ve all seen or experienced the crooked side of life and can understand a hard truth. They know Stanton is no good, but it’s how far they accept his deceptions that tests their principles or their heart. And the women aren’t punished --- not even smart, neatly suited Lilith. You might expect her to die in the end --- she completely out-Stantons Stanton. But she lives.
"Stanton falls the furthest. In the film’s most shocking moment, near the end, he sits across from the carny boss, booze-addled, eyes bagged and distorted to hell, accepting a job as geek --- a sad, bitter surrender. It could have ended there, but in the studio-imposed ending, Molly rescues him. Still, what now? Stan will likely remain a drunk, and Molly his caregiver. Resigned to their fates or their choices or their prisons of codependency and addiction --- a reincarnation of Pete and Zeena.
"It’s a discomforting conclusion; we can’t shake what came before it --- even if Zanuck felt it was a redemption of sorts, through Stan’s love for Molly. In Zanuck’s production memos for Nightmare Alley, he discussed, as another example, how he had got around to making James Cagney appealing in The Public Enemy by giving him 'one redeeming trait': 'He was a no-good bastard but he loved his mother, and somehow or other you felt a certain affection and rooting interest for him even though he was despicable.'
"But Cagney’s Tom Powers was a life force, a dark American vitalist: pugnacious, driven, forward-moving. Zanuck must have known there would be a joy in watching him --- even watching him do terrible things. In contrast, as mesmerizing as Power is, and as much as some may fantasize about running away to join a carnival, you probably wouldn’t dream about Stan’s kind of life. Power’s haunted aura here, his fearfulness, worms into our brains and speaks to our own particular anxieties. Many people feel trapped --- whether by their own decisions, their addictions, or the life they have been handed --- so, yes, we may feel a 'certain affection' for Stan. But he’s harder to embrace. And that’s part of what makes Power’s performance so disturbing, so powerful.
"The 'geek guy fascinates me' --- that sentiment was echoed by many through the decades as the film’s reputation grew. Eventually, the novel and film have gained their rightful positions as crowning achievements for Gresham, Goulding, and Power. Nightmare Alley --- the movie --- became, in many ways, the holy grail of Tyrone Power films, and the actor cited it often as his favorite of his own performances.
"One wonders how those first audiences in 1947 did feel seeing their matinee idol in such a brutal chronicle, so fascinated by the geek. They could not have forgotten it. And as the movie became so elusive through the years, the picture and Power’s performance must have felt like an especially feverish dream they once had. A delirium. A beautiful nightmare."