Nightmarealleyposter

Director: Edmund Goulding

Writer: Jules Furthman

Country: USA

Runtime: 110 mins

Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki, Ian Keith

One of the darkest of all film noirs

Nightmare Alley was the second film made by Tyrone Power, one of Hollywood’s greatest stars, following his return from wartime service in the Pacific theatre. Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, it was a film that Power fought to make in the face of opposition from studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who feared that the dark role of the protagonist might damage Power’s image. Although that didn’t happen, the film was not a success at the box office. Power was praised by critics for his performance, however, and Nightmare Alley has subsequently come to be regarded as a film noir classic.

Power plays Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a relatively junior carnival barker who is still learning the trade. Stan is an assistant for Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell), the carney’s fortune teller who is trying to keep her alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith), on the straight and narrow. Eager to make the big time, Stan begins to see dollar signs when he learns that Zeena and Pete once had their own highly successful psychic act outside the carney, in which Pete used a linguistic code to communicate the punters’ secrets to Zeena. Stan also learns a valuable lesson when Pete fools him with a psychic reading, in which Pete apparently sees Stan as a boy running through fields with his pet dog. Pete breaks the news that this was a stock reading: “Fits everybody! What’s youth? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy has a dog!” Learning from this, Stan finds he is able to exercise the gift of the gab to the extent that he can prevent a hostile policeman from closing down the carnival.

Following Pete’s death Zeena teaches Stan the code. She is helped in this task by Molly (Coleen Gray), the strongman’s girlfriend. But Stan has been dallying with both women and finds himself forced into a shotgun marriage with Molly. Seeing this as a golden opportunity, they set up a highly successful act in the big city. But events take a darker turn after Stan links up with a corrupt psychoanalyst (Helen Walker), using her client information to trick wealthy society folk out of their money.

Unlike many of the most famous film noirs, such as The Maltese Falcon, there is no humour in Nightmare Alley’s characters. It is surely one of the darkest film noirs ever made, a rise-and-fall story that presents us with a kaleidoscope of human desperation, degradation, duplicity, gullibility, and alcoholism. Many of the scenes take place in darkness, but with the characters’ faces brightly lit, exposing – by turn – their hope and hopelessness. The opening scene presents us with the carney geek, the most degraded and abused figure in American carnivals, a man – typically an alcoholic or drug addict – who would bite the heads off chickens in front of a delightedly horrified audience. But everybody is looking for something, even the wealthy, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Accordingly, one of the most pitiable figures is the society man Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), whose skepticism about the “Great Stanton” crumbles when Stan, furnished with information provided by Lilith, divines that Grindle is still in love with a woman who died thirty-five years ago. He then tries to manipulate Grindle for his own gain.

Whether Stanton Carlisle is a borderline psychopath or simply the product of his own desperate background is perhaps a matter for debate. I am inclined to the latter view, as Stan appears genuinely horrified by the sight of the geek, and also seems concerned for Pete’s suffering when deprived of alcohol. Stan also displays his own gullibility at times, a trait that eventually leads to his own downfall.

Given the bleakness of its vision, it is perhaps unsurprising that Nightmare Alley was a failure at the box office. Indeed, its “scandalous” content led to a number of protests. But the story is beautifully structured and absolutely compelling. Tyrone Power is riveting to watch, but also wonderfully supported by a superb cast. Joan Blondell (another Hollywood great) excels as Zeena, displaying a mixture of strength, sadness, and vulnerability – including vulnerability to temptation. Zeena describes herself to Stan as having “a heart as big as an artichoke and a leaf for everyone”. As her alcoholic husband Pete, Ian Keith switches between uncomprehending drunkeness and a kind of sad wisdom, whilst Taylor Holmes’s performance as Ezra Grindle brilliantly demonstrates the cruelty perpetrated when the innocent are hoodwinked by the cynical.

Rating: 10/10

Nightmare Alley is available on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox’s ‘The Studio Collection’ .

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