Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (1947) might seem a very odd way to ring out the old and ring in the new. It’s a dark film, both literally and figuratively; an overlooked noir masterpiece for far too long, unapologetically unsentimental about the plight of its wayward anti-hero, Stanton Carlisle. While most noir thrillers are either detective-based or femme fatale driven, with a firm grip on what constitutes the general morality of the American public, the characters inhabiting Jules Furthman's screenplay are universally brutal and uncompromising malcontents, who live the sort of sordid lives no human being should ever even dare try. Viewing Nightmare Alley from today’s vantage, one is immediately awestruck by its resplendent tawdriness, the way Furthman’s art has managed to capture the vial moodiness of its source material, skillfully elude the Production Code’s moral judgment call (that might have otherwise emasculated its potency as gripping screen entertainment) and, at least in hindsight, prophetically foreshadow just how far our present day appetite for such movies has completely swung in the other direction. The testament to Goulding and Furthman’s vision is likely best summed up in the negativity heaped upon Nightmare Alley upon its general release. The New York Times chastised the film, saying “If one can take any moral value out of Nightmare Alley it would seem to be that a terrible retribution is the inevitable consequence for he who would mockingly attempt to play God. Otherwise…this film traverses distasteful dramatic ground and only rarely does it achieve any substance as entertainment.”
Nightmare Alley is irrefutably wicked and brooding. Teeming with the sort of diabolical heresy flying in the face of Hollywood’s then conventional glamour, it plays much better now than it did back then; our current disenchantment with life in general more readily celebrated as art in modern movies. And Nightmare Alley is unapologetically bleak in its denouement too; no reconciliation for its tarnished con artist, reduced from nightclub slickster to gin-soaked gimp, biting the heads off live chickens in a traveling carny’s freak show. No, Nightmare Alley was decidedly not the picture most wanted to see in 1947 and definitely not the role matinee heartthrob, Tyrone Power’s adoring female fans expected to find him in either. But WWII had changed Power – if not altogether, than sincerely, and, in increments. His pre-war films now seemed slightly silly to him; his pretty boy reputation as something of the all-American successor to the stud mantle vacated by Rudolph Valentino irreversibly altered, or perhaps, merely matured. It isn’t simply a different Ty Power up there in Nightmare Alley. It’s what’s going on inside his own head that seems to haunt from the peripheries of the screen; the fellow with something more substantial to say and the pulpit of his own reputation as a reigning sex symbol to say it loudly with conviction. Alas, Ty’s star power alone was not enough to save Nightmare Alley from becoming something of a personal incubus.
The film sank like a stone at the box office, effectively ruining Power’s chances of ever eschewing his formerly ensconced movie-land persona. It’s a genuine pity too, because there’s some utterly fascinating subtext in Power’s Stanton Carlisle. He’s a terrible cad, a reckless fool with women; a greedy little bastard elsewhere, given free hand with the three who mark his time but ultimately stain his Teflon-coated reputation as a divinely inspired mentalist, reading people’s thoughts inside a swank Manhattan nightclub. It’s all a ruse, of course, done superficially to manipulate, cajole and entertain the patrons, but moreover to fatten Stan’s wallet, using a clever ‘code’ shown him by carny crystal ball gazer, Zeena Krumbein (Joan Blondell), who hopes for more than just Stan’s gratitude in return. Zeena’s married to Pete (Ian Keith); a hopeless – if empathetic drunkard. If only she were free. But Zeena is loyal to Pete…practically. And she isn’t really Stan’s type either; he preferring the inexperienced tartlet, Molly (Coleen Gray) who is heavily guarded by carny strongman, Bruno (Mike Mazurki, doing a variation on the all brawn/no brain hulk that was this actor’s stock in trade). Much later into this mix comes the devious psychoanalyst, Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), using her viper’s charm to seduce Stan into divulging the secrets of his clairvoyant powers, then blackmailing him with a plot to bilk a rich patron’s pockets, but keeping the kitty all for herself.
The women in Jules Furthman’s screenplay, loosely based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, are a trio of ambitious adders. Interestingly, none ever attain the status of the traditional noir femme fatale and this makes each of them all the more spellbinding to observe. Zeena, as example, is more motherly – or perhaps, sisterly – towards Stan. She loves him far too much to ever ‘love him’ as a lesser gal might. When Stan inadvertently poisons Pete by confusing a bottle of malt liquor for a fresh bottle of wood grain pure alcohol, even Zeena knows he didn’t mean to do it. By contrast, Molly is practically an innocent; riding the crest of Stan’s newfound fame as his glamorously clad assistant, feeding clues in code to questions audience members have written down on cue cards. Stan replies with intelligent answers that seem to have come as though through osmosis, unlocking a door into their inner thoughts. Actually, it’s Molly’s intonation tipping Stan off; the pair coached by Zeena on a highly complicated code of communications. As for Lilith: she’s devious, amoral and rotten to the core. That said, she wants no part of Stan, other than to see him squirm. And once her tear down of his public image is complete, she disappears, content in her deconstruction of this man’s reputation, stripped naked and left dying.
Prior to the release of Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power had been 2oth Century-Fox’s resident and most bankable heartthrob. The heir to an acting dynasty, in his youth Tyrone Power was an uncommonly handsome leading man. Then, studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck was content to exploit Power’s undeniable assets in some fairly featherweight films. But these never stretched Power’s appeal or his abilities as an actor. For a time, Power accepted his plush treatment without question. It had, after all, made him the envy of virtually all Hollywood’s then reigning he-men; save MGM’s Clark Gable and freelancer, Cary Grant: very rare company, indeed. But at war’s end, Power suddenly became disenchanted with the prospects of returning to his alma mater for more of the same. He was, after all, older now. And it is interesting to note the distinct change in Power’s look in just those few short years of military service; a harder edge; the ‘little boy’s innocence’ gone from behind the eyes, his eyebrows particularly exaggerated. As a result, the parts Ty chose to play after his homecoming at Fox took on more ballast, beginning with The Razor’s Edge (1946); a lumbering monument to Somerset Maugham’s literary examination of America’s dwindling aristocracy, in which Ty played the introspective and philosophizing proletariat hero, Larry Darrell whose spiritual enlightenment abroad wrecks his chances for the superficial happiness he might have once found with a flashy lass from one of Long Island’s ‘respectable’ families.
The Razor’s Edge was lavishly appointed. But it was not a colossal smash at the box office. Immediately following the epic implosion of Nightmare Alley, Zanuck recalled Ty to the kinds of parts he had made famous before the war; swashbucklers mostly, and the occasional dim-witted screwball comedy. Alas, Ty could not assimilate back into such roles without revealing too much of the inner adult, hardened by the European conflict. This alone seems to have altered the chemistry of his devil-may-care sexiness. Now, he possessed a steelier pallor. One need only observe Power in a moment from Nightmare Alley where Stan, reduced to a cinder of his former self and half-drunk, administers to a gathered group of train-hopping hobos; reading their fortunes by bastardizing their memories from childhood, only to cruelly debunk the mystery of his clairvoyance once a few of the ole rummies have already bought into his gimmick; thereby, puncturing the balloons of their desperate need to believe in something – anything – once again. It’s an uncharacteristically cruel and unforgivable moment for Power’s character; still high and mighty and lauding his ability to flimflam the ‘dumb’ masses even as he has sunk to their level and is on the very fast track to plummet even further within a few additional scenes.
There’s a sinister magic at work behind Powers’ eyes, a wicked and juicy little gleam refusing to surrender. His subtle gesticulations are expertly placed too; a small shift in the arc of his slumped shoulders, a half twist of his neck, cocked to the right as he regains a moment’s composure to gloat about those near forgotten times when he truly was the puppet master of seemingly anyone’s impressionable thoughts, and most assuredly the unscrupulous manipulator of most women’s hearts – except, of course, Lilith’s. Power had hoped to reinvent his screen presence with Nightmare Alley; deepen the breadth and scope of his actor’s craft as, perhaps, he had seen Dick Powell do over at Warner Bros.; from crooning contract ingénue, warbling sweet nothings into Ruby Keeler’s eardrum, now effortlessly morphed into the gritty noir gumshoe, Philip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet (1944). Unfortunately for Ty, and Zanuck – who agreed to invest heavily in Nightmare Alley, perhaps assuming Ty’s star power alone would be enough to salvage the picture – the audience did not want to see him stray so far from his already patented irresistible charm.
Indeed, Zanuck was taking no chances with the reputation of his biggest box office draw. The opening scenes in Nightmare Alley give us Ty Power – star, stud, immaculately quaffed, his taut body poured into tight fitting T-shirts or impeccably tailored penguin suits; the peacock given back his strut on loan. There’s a deliciousness to Ty’s re-entry into the movie; Power seemingly going along with the look of a star – if not the charisma. In fact, almost from the moment he appears on camera, there’s something remiss about his Stanton Carlisle. He’s too assured, too vain and much too fascinated with his own abilities to manipulate. He lacks the one essential necessary to be considered any woman’s dreamboat: an understanding heart. Without this, Power’s handsome carny is little more than the proverbial beast wrapped inside beauty’s shell. The Furthman screenplay gives Power a singular moment in which to express his mild – and fleeting – repentance, immediately following his discovery he has accidentally switched Pete’s libation from malt liquor to blood-poisoning pure alcohol. Arguably, it’s a necessary moment so the audience won’t hate his character outright. But it offers very little tangible proof that Stanton Carlisle isn’t a bad egg; merely, a misguided one.
The screenplay does, in fact, take pity on Power’s fall from grace in the eleventh hour; Stan collapsing in Molly’s arms after she has discovered him, reduced to the status of a kept mutant in a travelling sideshow; shouting uncontrollable and disturbing animal grunts while hunted down by his angry handlers. It’s Power morphing from man into beast, or perhaps merely revealing his character’s truer self to the world – the shyster now a primal gimp, as it were – forcibly stripped of his congenial façade and prematurely aged, that is startling – even heartrending – to observe. Here is an actor unafraid to bare all for the sake of his art; to dismantle our preconceived notions about his own camera presence and explore the depth and purpose he possesses as a legitimate actor; to boldly plumb uncharted territories of human suffrage, distilled to their most prehistoric rape of the soul and let the audience in on the ugly side of such self-destructiveness and arctic desolation.
William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, first published in 1946, has long since been hailed as a truly unsettling, raw and uninhibited magnum opus. Owing to concessions made for the sake of satisfying the then governing board of Hollywood censorship, Goulding’s film is arguably no less potent, creepy and utterly jaundiced in its portrait of these seedy denizens, scampering like rats over one another in their jaded inner darkness and despair. Zanuck had had his misgivings about making the movie. But he had faith in his star, who passionately championed to play the lead. Artistically speaking, that faith was not diminished. Power is magnetic in the role. To add another layer of verisimilitude to the film, art directors J. Russell Spencer and Lyle Wheeler were given carte blanche to build a full scale carnival on ten acres of the Fox studio back lot, populating their artifice with nearly one hundred genuine sideshow attractions. The unsung hero of Nightmare Alley is undeniably cinematographer, Lee Garmes; a craftsman par excellence, taking the precepts of chiaroscuro lighting to their extreme. In one scene, Garmes’ shadows are so harsh and pronounced they virtually obscure half of Joan Blondell and Tyrone Power’s heads in a medium two shot that lingers for several minutes on the screen; a very gutsy move in the days when audiences paid to ‘see’ their stars.
Nightmare Alley begins at the carnival, a place for escapist fun and superficial amusements – at least for its patrons. But behind the scenes there lingers a den of iniquity, constantly threatened by internal power struggles, jealousy and, of course, deception. We meet Stanton Carlisle (Power), a bored-with-life rigger and part of tarot card reader, Mademoiselle Zeena’s (Joan Blondell) entourage. Stan helps pull the wool over the patrons’ eyes. Zeena has, in fact, fallen on some very hard times. Once a top-billed act with her husband, Pete (Ian Keith), she has long since committed to a solo, ever since Pete fell into a bottle and has been quietly unable to escape his torturous alcoholism. It’s wrecked the act, their marriage and, at least superficially, their love for each other. Alas, Zeena is empathetic to her husband’s plight, the screenplay implying the crux of Pete’s spiral into oblivion was a past indiscretion committed by Zeena.
Eventually, Stan discovers Zeena is holding out on selling the code to prospective buyers. He attempts to schmooze his way into a quick steal. But Zeena is hardly a novice. She also doesn’t buy Stan’s amorous act for a second, although she does harbor hidden sexual desires about him as well. Zeena, however, is focused on raising enough money to send Pete to a detox clinic. Stan, however, is an enabler, smuggling in moonshine to keep Pete appropriately inebriated and out of the way. The plan backfires, however, when Stan, returning in the pale moonlight to Pete and Zeena’s tent, accidentally mistakes a bottle of wood grain alcohol for the moonshine. Pete drinks it and dies. Keeping the particulars of this mix-up to himself Stan, ever the opportunist, now presents himself as Zeena’s last hope to keep her act alive. There is no other way. She must teach him the code so he can become her faithful assistant. Reluctantly, Zeena complies; unaware Stan has already begun to gravitate in his affections toward the much younger/less jaded, Molly. When the pair’s illicit romance is found out, Bruno forces Stan into a shotgun wedding.
Stan elects to leave the carnival, taking Molly with him. In a very short period, Stan teaches Molly Zeena’s code and the two embark upon a whirlwind career in Chicago as ‘The Great Stanton’ and his assistant. Sitting in the audience is Lilith Ritter, who becomes insidiously fascinated by the act; actually, more by Stan, whom she would like to lure away from Molly. Suspecting as much, Molly is opposed to Lilith’s plan. She hasn’t been fooled into thinking Stan possesses a natural clairvoyance. So she makes Stan an offer. As a prominent psychoanalyst, Lilith will provide Stan with easy access to her own patient confidential case files, thus plying her most desperate clientele with the even more treacherous ruse Stan can communicate with their dearly departed loved ones. The plan is practically foolproof and will net the pair untold riches from those rich in purse though utterly naïve and ready to believe anything is possible.
Stan’s greed knows no boundaries. He and Lilith latch on to extreme skeptic, Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), who has lost the great love of his life and is anxious to be reunited with her even for the briefest of moments. Noticing an uncanny resemblance between Grindle’s dead paramour and his own, Stan cajoles a very reluctant Molly to pose as the living corpse. However, Molly’s love for Stan is tested when Grindle, falling complete for their charade - hook, line and sinker - suffers a tearful breakdown in her presence. Molly reneges on the plan, confessing all to Grindle who vows to hunt down Stan and Lilith and see to it both are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Desperate to avoid incarceration, Stan hurries to make off with the loot embezzled from Grindle’s account, only to discover he too has been taken for a ride. Lilith has left him a measly $150 of the promised $150,000. Worse, Lilith has concocted a foolproof alibi to stave off her own imprisonment. She will testify under oath that Stan was a patient of hers, mentally disturbed and suffering from delusions of grandeur. It was his plan to swindle Grindle – not hers; his responsibility to face the consequences of these actions now.
Cornered and facing prosecution, Stan is forced to flee. He gives Molly the $150 dollars and urges her to disappear back to the carny where their empathetic friends will surely care for her out of pity. Stan then disappears, using a series of disguises, becoming a recluse first, then a drunk and eventually riding the rails with no plan of action for the future. At the end of his proverbial rope, Stan attempts to land a job at another carnival as a clairvoyant fortune teller. The proprietor is unimpressed. Moreover, he already has such an act in his employ. But he could always use a gimp; a sideshow oddity who will shock and revile the audience by eating live chickens. Realizing he has sunk to an all-time low, Stan agrees to play this part. But it preys upon his mind. He loses his grip on reality, actually becoming a freak show geek. Mercifully, Molly discovers Stan working for the same carnival. Collapsing in her arms, Stan repeats a scene that occurred earlier between Zeena and Pete, Molly vowing to nurture and nurse Stan back to health and his former self.
Nightmare Alley is about as unsettling and dire as noir melodramas can get. Author, William Lindsay Gresham had written the novel – his first – while serving in the Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War, befriending a former carny who presumably relayed such tales to him in their spare time spent together. The book was a big hit, Gresham using a different Tarot card to introduce each chapter. The film ditches this motif for a more straight forward approach to the narrative. In retrospect, there is a mild, though palpable and lingering anxiety on Goulding’s part to evoke all of the hellacious particulars in the novel, especially those in the last chapters dedicated to Stan’s severe downward spiral. Perhaps, Zanuck too was pulling more than a few strings to insist, at least, in part, that Tyrone Power appeared as any star of his caliber should; virile and immaculately dressed. True to the Production Code, the grotesque act of devouring live fowl is, of course, something we never see. But it is implied with ominous sound effects and a persistent half-human/half-animal growl heard at both the start and near the end of the picture, allowing our collective imaginations to run wild. And Power does the almost unthinkable; he has makeup artist, Ben Nye fix him with a prosthetic nose and eye pieces that completely distort the near perfect symmetry of his own facial features.
Ably abetted by Lee Garmes' cinematography - a glowering chiaroscuro fantasia that bathes its cast in unrelenting darkness (the actors frequently emerging from the inkiest of shadows, especially Tyrone Power – debuted herein as the anti-Power - or at least, a Power unlike any we've come to admire and appreciate before or since), Nightmare Alley persistently devours us with its shocking amount of sexually-charged gutter depravity, virtually unseen – and certainly, untested - in American movies before its time. Given the public’s penchant for wanting stars to look like stars, their level of expectation force-fed on a daily diet of frothy entertainments, even ambiguous film noirs that, nevertheless, usually had the side of the moral right triumphant before the final fade out, is it any wonder Nightmare Alley failed at the box office? 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 Tyrone Power his fans have paid to see. Whatever the reason, Nightmare Alley is far from an artistic failure. In fact, it has since acquired a solid reputation as one of the best – if most sinister – film noirs in cinema history.
Fox Home Video has yet to furnish us with a Blu-ray of Edmund Goulding’s masterpiece. For now, we must content ourselves with their rather impressive looking DVD. It’s not without its flaws, shortly to be discussed herein. For decades, a rights issue precluded Nightmare Alley from appearing anywhere on home video. The B&W gray scale is quite excellently represented – the noir style palpable and foreboding. Blacks are very black. But whites tend to have a slight gray tinge. Age-related artifacts are present throughout. Though hardly a distraction, they do – at times – become a prominent part of the image. Fine detail is occasionally lost in darkly lit scenes. But film grain is surprisingly accurate. I’m really not sure why Fox Home Video of this particular vintage endeavored with gusto to offer us rechanneled ‘stereo’ as an addendum to original restored mono mixes. Nightmare Alley is hardly a film to benefit from this transition. And rechanneled stereo is not true stereo; the audio stems merely amplified and artificially ‘stretched’ to accommodate side speakers. The only extra included on this disc is a very comprehensive audio commentary by noir aficionados/historians, James Ursini and Alain Silver; also a theatrical trailer. One would sincerely hope Fox will get around to doing a complete 1080p remaster of this startling noir gem, or at least farm it out to Criterion for the full Monty treatment. Otherwise, Nightmare Alley is highly recommended. Turn out the lights, dear children. It’s time for a very good scare!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)