There is a fine line of distinction to be made about Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (1947); an overlooked film noir masterpiece. While other noir thrillers were either detective based or femme fatale driven, but with a firm grip on what constitutes the general morality of the American public, the characters that inhabit Jules Furthman's screenplay are universally brutal malcontents who live the sort of sordid lives no human being ought ever even dare try.
Resident 20th Century-Fox heartthrob, Tyrone Power perceived the project as a way of transforming his male pin-up image to encompass a grittier realism. Unfortunately, Ty's audiences did not want to see him stray too far from those irresistible pretty boy good looks.
And, in fact, he doesn't for much of the story; appearing first in a skin-tight T to show off his much celebrated male musculature, before stepping into more familiar garb (a dashing tux) as the Great Stanton. Ah, but then comes the last act; the unsympathetic and rather terrifying alcoholic spiral of a man who is ultimate reduced to performing as a sideshow freak who bites the heads off of live chickens.
True to the classic Hollywood convention, this gruesome act, of course, we never see. But it is implied. And Power does the almost unthinkable; he has makeup artist Ben Nye fix him with prosthetic nose and eye pieces that completely alter the shape of that perfect face to its own detriment.
Ably abetted by Lee Garmes' cinematography - a glowering chiaroscuro fantasia that bathes its star in unrelenting darkness, the actor emerges from the shadows as the anti-Power - or at least, a Power unlike any we've come to admire and appreciate before or since.
This is as it should be. It's right for the character Power is playing. Is it good for Power's image as a matinee idol looking to broaden his artistic horizons? Ah, now there's the deeper question best left unanswered for those who have not yet seen the film.
Power is cast as Stanton Carlisle – a two bit carnival player who is currently working the backwater circuit as part of an act with Zeena Krumbean (Joan Blondell) and her husband, Pete (Ian Keith). Pete’s drunkenness leaves plenty of time for Stan’ and Zeena to fool around. But Zeena’s no fool. She knows Stan’ is after her only for ‘the code’ – a way of learning the trickery behind a mind reading act that she and Pete used to do.
After Stan accidentally poisons Pete, he learns manages to learn the trick for himself. Zeena will have no part of it. But another carnival gal, Molly (Colleen Gray) just might. In point of fact, she's anxious to get away from her hulkish - though decidedly dimwitted beau - Bruno (Mike Mazurki).
Stan is a sly one. He loves no one but himself. But Molly is bright, sexy and would make a good assistant. So together, Stan and Molly hit the big time nightclubs as ‘The Amazing Stanton’.
Hailed by high society as a master clairvoyant, Stan perpetuates his hoax to extort money from the idle rich. But a crimp in his plans enters his life in the personage of psychiatrist, Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker). Before long Lil’ is blackmailing Stan for a percentage of his livelihood or face being exposed as a fraud. There is no way out – no place left to escape.
Molly tells Stan they should quit the act. They have enough money to live on, and besides, Molly wants to settle down. Stan, however, needs the limelight. More than that; he desperately craves it. Without the spotlight he's a nobody.
After trying to convince Stan that he will always be a someone to her, Molly leaves him. Lilith makes good on her threat to expose the act and the public rebels against the man they once believed to have extraordinary psychic abilities. His public stature left in ruins, Stan becomes an alcoholic hobo. Eventually he returns to the travelling circus, but finds that the only work he can get is as its resident 'gimp'; a depraved subhuman that slaughters live farm animals with his bare hands.
Zeena and Molly learn what has become of Stan. Although Zeena is unsympathetic, Molly chooses to reunite with her ex. Even so, their final moments together are hardly sympathetic or reassuring that Stan's self respect will be restored.
Nightmare Alley is a perilously dark and dirty, cynical film. It weaves its sordid tale of social depravity without offering even a hint of redemption before the final reel. In an era where sugary sweet and lighthearted romps were the order of the day, is it any wonder that this film was a colossal flop when it premiered?
Possibly the fault belongs to Power - not because he isn't spot on in the role, but rather because he is, and it isn't the way his fans expected him to be. Whatever the reason, Nightmare Alley is far from an artistic failure.
Fox Home Video gives us a rather impressive looking DVD transfer. The B&W gray scale is quite dramatic – the noir style palpable and foreboding. Blacks are very black. Whites tend to have a slight gray tinge. Age related artifacts are present throughout but do not terribly distract. Fine detail is generally lost in darker scenes but otherwise nicely represented.
The audio has been remixed to stereo but the original mono will suffice. Extras include an audio commentary, stills gallery and theatrical trailer for this and other Fox Film Noir titles. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)