Nightmare Alley (1947) Directed by Edmund Goulding
An odd but now well-regarded film noir, with A-list stars and production staff, and a larger-than-normal budget, Nightmare Alley is based on William Lindsay Gresham’s squalid 1946 novel. In an attempt to move away from his usual roles as a romantic lead and adventurer, Tyrone Power bought the rights to the novel in order to play its antihero, Stan Carlisle (which explains the stars and budget). Film critic J. Hoberman commented in 2000 that the film is “remarkably sordid for so high-profile a release,” a tagline that might have increased the film’s popularity when it was originally released. It’s a terrible shame that Gresham couldn’t have written this novel 15 years earlier—it’s hard not to daydream about what a pre-Code production might have made of it. The story begins and ends at a carnival sideshow, with characters musing about the show’s geek, a man brought so low that he bites the heads off chickens and drinks their blood or swallows the heads, depending on your source, in order to stay in liquor (or narcotics).
What motivates our man Stan is feeling superior to others, so operating as a carny is a natural fit—he enjoys scoffing at the gullibility of the “chumps” and feeling “as if you were in the know, and they were on the outside.” Within short order, Stan has accidentally murdered Zeena the Psychic’s washed-out, alcoholic partner and husband, Pete (Ian Keith). Stan mistakenly gives Pete the bottle of wood alcohol used in Zeena’s act instead of the moonshine he’s been drinking. Stan is the sort of fellow who accidentally murders people, and he’s sorry, in the sense that he didn’t actively want Pete to die, but he doesn’t skip a beat in using the death to his own advantage. By taking Pete’s place in Zeena’s act, and in her life, Stan becomes a valuable asset. Zeena (a worn-looking Joan Blondell) teaches him the complex word code that allows her to appear psychic when answering questions from the crowd. When he is more or less kicked out of the carnival because he’s been secretly wooing Molly (Coleen Gray), the Electric Girl, behind Zeena’s back, he finds that this too is opportunity in disguise. Employing Molly (after marrying her rather unenthusiastically), he takes Zeena’s psychic act where the money is, upscale nightclubs, becoming Stanton the Great in the process.
Though Stan engineers his own downfall, he has some help along the way. The vehicle of his destruction is an even more sociopathic con artist—the aptly named Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), a psychiatrist, who, in the novel, is faking even her credentials. By the time Stan gets the best advice he probably ever will—“Don’t cry in that good liquor!”—he is riding the rails with the other bums, holding them briefly spellbound with a reading, stolen from Pete, that fits any man. Unlike the novel, which wallows in its seedy fug to the last page, the film allows Stan a glimmer of hope, as he reunites with Molly at another carnival.
The heart of the movie is the doubling of Pete and Stan. Believing he’s smarter than everyone else makes Stan think Pete is just a loser, a weak man who couldn’t hack it. But, as Pete points out, he used to be just like Stan. Like Stan, he could do cold readings that worked like magic. And then something happened, and Pete broke. The scene in which Stan accidentally leaves Pete with the wrong bottle of booze demonstrates how alike they truly are. Pete can still manage to enchant an audience, at least for a few minutes. Crouching underneath Zeena’s stage, Pete holds the cynical and ambitious Stan spellbound as he reels out a stock reading. The Self-Styled Siren’s description captures it: “Stanton is immediately drawn in by Pete’s ‘psychic’ spiel: ‘I see a boy…a dog…’ Immediately Stanton says yes, that’s me! that’s my dog! ‘There’s always a dog,’ says Pete, with a malicious, wheezing laugh.” Forgetting that he was just as gullible as the “yokels” he mocks, Stan absorbs the trick and doesn’t look back when Pete turns up dead. Stan remains confident of his own unique superiority to failures like Pete, but we can see that Stan is going to follow Pete’s footsteps all the way to his fetid fate as an alcoholic has-been. The ruthless Lilith will become the insider, manipulating her mark, and Stan will find himself stranded on the outside.
That Stan’s destination seems inevitable the moment he falls for Pete’s reading might suggest that the story buys into some of its own hokum. As part of her psychic act, Zeena reads the cards—the Tarot, which Zeena endearingly pronounces as though it rhymes with “parrot.” And though she doesn’t believe she’s psychic, she does believe in the cards. The cards are always right. Stan is a bit like poor Oedipus—in his hurry to get away from the humiliating fate he’s worried about, he finds himself careening towards it. Of course, the cards don’t read Stan’s future; they read Stan. It is Stan’s character, lacking in empathy and smug in the certainty of his superiority, that determines his fate.
Tyrone Power didn’t get to play a lot of great roles; it’s easy to understand why he went after the part of Stan with such zeal. And Power pulls it off beautifully. For an actor allegedly dull as a bank clerk, Power is utterly convincing as Stan, at every stop along the journey. The Siren deconstructs his best scene, in which Stan rescues the carnival from being shut down by a doubting rural sheriff. The cold reading, a masterful riff on Pete’s boy-and-his-dog yarn, shows Stan settling into the role of first-rate manipulator, both physically and verbally. To be fair, everyone here is remarkably good, especially Joan Blondell, who, like Power, allows her character’s past to run roughshod over her movie-star good looks, and without tamping down Zeena’s sexuality in the least.
Edmund Goulding wasn’t a name I recognized, but I should have, both as writer and director. Nightmare Alley was for Goulding, as it was for Power, the odd film out. At MGM, Goulding was known for satiny, high-polish projects like Grand Hotel (1932), the Norma Shearer vehicle Riptide (1934), and Dark Victory (1939), as well as 1941’s The Great Lie with Bette Davis and Mary Astor, which has played recently on Turner Classic Movies. As a bonus, the hulking Mike Mazurki, who played Moose Malloy in the Dick Powell version of Murder My Sweet three years earlier, is here an overprotective lug who takes up with Zeena once Stan has run off with Molly.
A cineaste with impeccable taste, a fathomless love for classic film, and a sharp tongue, the Self-Styled Siren posts about Nightmare Alley (1) and again about Tyrone Power (2).