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I first saw this film in the late 70's on a Toronto television program devoted to classic cinema. I was joined by friends who always got together on Saturday nights to watch the musicals, comedies, or classic performances offered that week. NIGHTMARE ALLEY came as a surprise. It was a raw, exposed nerve of a film. Instead of the Hollywood diction we had come to expect, this film expressed itself in 1940's carny colloquialisms. And nobody in the cast was soft - they were all hard knocks characters, almost down for the count, but still fighting. After about 15 minutes, nobody in front of that set moved until it was all over, except maybe to look sideways to see if anyone else could believe their eyes. This is a movie clawing your way to the top , and then paying the price for getting there. This is a movie about being careful what you wish for. It is a movie about odd fascinations with people who are actually messengers of your future in disguise. And ultimately, it is a movie about how futile is the love of a good woman if the man is destined for ruin. Needless to say, it was not standard Hollywood fare when made in the 40's, and it is still not standard fare today. It's message is somehow both shocking and familiar. Listen for the last words uttered, as though in offhand comment about our 'hero' by bystanders. Those words haunted me for over 20 years, until I was able to track down another showing of the film on TV (STILL not on VCR or DVD for heaven's sake!). And I remembered them correctly all that time - that's the impact they made. See this film. Surrender to it. It's that good.
One of the most obscure films produced by classic Hollywood. It's Tyrone Power in the role of his life and the tragedy of an ambitious circus apprentice becoming a con artist and gradually turning into a pseudo-religious guru. Both director Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, Dark Victory) and writer W.L. Gresham committed suicide, and one can smell suicide in this gem of a film, that is the story of the embezzlement of a gift. That circus operates as a good metaphor of the B-system Hollywood of the 40's, where geeks worked side by sided with geniuses. The tarot cards foresee the worst: there's a geek in every man's soul, no matter how big one can be, a downfall no imposed `happy ending' can hide. In this nightmare populated by fun-fairs, alcoholism and eccentric millionaires obsessed with the deceased, the film version makes use of the essential from the source novel and provides the best invention: an unscrupulous psychiatrist who records her patients on tape and then blackmails them, a device that Brian de Palma himself would have be proud of.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY works like a gigantic fate-driven machine. We see the
main character, Stanton Carlyle (memorably enacted by Tyrone Power
whose physical beauty underlines his tragic persona) become caught up
in the cogs of this machine early on, when he gets the idea of taking
over the mind-reading act. Henceforward, it's a dark, descending
spiral. A fascinating spiral, since it appears to be going upward at
first. Power and the beautiful Colleen Gray enter in to the venues of
the ultra-rich with their glorified carnival act. Then Gray and and
earlier amanuensis Joan Blondell are supplanted by the controlled,
mysterious Helen Walker (in a knockout performance). What is so
intriguing now, is how Carlyle begins to believe in his own
manufactured powers. Thinking himself in control of the cynical ploy
concocted by himself and Walker, Carlyle is tossed into a pit of
dejection and humiliation, when Gray foils the scheme. Back on the
carnival skids--but this time far lower than he was before--Carlyle can
find only the possibility of redemption in Gray's embrace.
It is tempting to wish the film would end with Gray turning away from the horrific spectacle of the new geek. For this would be the darkest of noir conclusions. I seem to remember the studio (Fox) insisting on the glimmer of hope on Power's face.
Its conclusion aside, the film impresses in its use of expressionistic lighting, set design and music to create a feeling of inescapable, malevolent force driving Stanton Carlyle to ultimate degradation. This is a film in which no production element seems wasted. It's almost too good be be true, an ideal 'dark film', grotesque, yet hauntingly beautiful.
As other commentators have noted, once you've seen this film it haunts you. The creepy carnival milieu has rarely been better done (well, Tod Browning's "Freaks" of course) but seems more wholesome than the upscale world of nightclub mentalists and corrupt psychiatrists to which Tyrone Power ascends. Joan Blondell is carnally blowzy but she's almost upstaged by the ill-starred actress Helen Walker (the duplicitous wife in Impact) as that double-crossing shrink. No one soon forgets Power's slippery climb to the top followed by his horrifying fall. This film is a true, dark classic.
Tryone Power gave one of his finest performances in "Nightmare Alley." His
off-beat role highlighted a strange and intriguing tale, and was a role
which he reportedly fought hard to get, upon his return to film work
following military duty.
Power proved he was capable of much more demanding parts than those normally given him. On screen most of the time, he displayed a flair for sound characterization and nuance, being endowed with an unusually fine speaking voice and diction.
Lee Garmes' cinematography and Thomas Little's set decoration are notable here, and the entire cast works in fine ensemble fashion. Only some plot details may seem a little obvious and predictable. That's probably because "Nightmare Alley" details have been copied numerous times by other film makers and, as a result, we're much more savvy now than 1947 audiences.
It was a particular treat to have an opportunity to see this film last week on a film society series in a beautiful 35mm print. The showing also reminded viewers how beautiful and effective black and white productions are, and how much they're missed.
It is totally amazing, nearly 60 years later, to realize the lengths
that 20th Century Fox went to in order to keep Tyrone Power a handsome
leading man rather than letting him show his stuff. It's no wonder Fox
came to disgrace during the Cleopatra era. Pity it didn't happen
earlier so Power had more opportunities to show his acting range.
Nightmare Alley was a favorite of mine from the time I was a teenager -a film Power fought to make and one that the studio never publicized and released as a B film. Spiteful bunch, considering the money he had made for them! Power, Blondell, Gray, Helen Walker, and the marvelous Ian Keith turn in great performances in a gritty film somewhat ahead of its time for its unrelenting toughness, its hard view of alcoholism, a look inside the world of mentalists and carnival life, and its theme of the supernatural. It is reminiscent of "Ace in the Hole" and some of the later, cynical Wilder films.
Power was one of those actors whose drop dead gorgeous appearance kept him from some excellent roles, thanks to his studio. He sometimes could appear rigid (though not in this film) but someone I knew saw him in a Broadway play and said it was like being alone in a room with him, he had such magnetism. We have so few examples of his really great work - the recording of John Brown's Body is one, this film is another - it's great that it's now out on DVD and available to the public.
Nightmare Alley is a remarkable film- it hardly blinks in showing a cynical, scheming "preacher" doing his thing.Given the norms of Hollywood at the time, or almost at any time,it does give you a lot to consider.Tyrone Power is brilliant, and the movie is actually quite close to the powerful (hard to find!) novel.In the best tradition of a movie that examines the dark side of society in an effectively muckraking way, it is a rare gem. I found the movie all the more effective for the fact that while Tyrone Power is in a quite uncharacteristic role. It is obvious he is strongly committed to the film and delivers a chilling, scary, thought provoking performance. The glimpses of the brutality of contemporary circus/side show life are in themselves interesting and disquieting. It is a rare film and even rarer book, but really worth the time.
This anomalous drama, light years ahead of its time in 1947, is set in
a rustic time and place of American history. This is the Carnivals that
once traveled from town to town where for a couple of hours the tedious
routine of hard working people of the small towns and farms across the
land could be shattered as a result of having their minds stretched by
bizarre sideshows and their pockets emptied with fixed games of chance
favoring the establishment.
By 1947 Tyrone Power, once considered one of the handsomest young men in the picture business, had established himself as one of Hollywood's leading stars. However his career was now on the downhill side of the climb. Thus, he needed a shot-in-the-arm powerful role. In this extraordinary concept and novel to movie story of human karma he found it. The nomenclature of Geek had a far different denotation than it does today. Here we get a front seat look at the full impact of its original meaning. Nightmare Alley is the true career showcase for Power's range as an actor. He is superb in this unforgettable portrayal.
Wandered in on this classic many years ago, when it aired on
with no advance notice. I'd read a Houdini biography by William Lindsay
Gresham, and seeing his name on this really got my curiosity up. Can't
understand all the comparisons to "Freaks". They share a carnival setting,
and little else.
In these days of "Crossing Over", and psychic 1-900 hotlines,
should see this expose of the psychic business, possibly more important
than then. Tyrone Power is excellent, playing against type, and showing
acting ability than many expected. The cast is virtually flawless, and the
story remains timely. Having worked on a carnival myself, this film was
useful. Between this, and the gambling books of John Scarne, I started at
the carnival with full knowledge of the scams that augmented their
I guess that a new print has been struck for arthouse showings, but
really need a lavish DVD presentation, with all the extras and
they can find!
Usually when one has read about a film for many years without having the opportunity to actually see it, one is disappointed when the viewing actually happens -- not so with Fox's "Nightmare Alley". Boasting an excellent script(Jules Furthman) and direction (Edmund Goulding)it also showcases actors Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker to great advantage. Seldom, if ever have they given such fine performances as they do in this classic film. It is surprising that 20th Century Fox would have put so much money and talent into a film that must have been very difficult to sell -- but this is major production in every department. The large cast and excellent sets are all well used. The dialog is far above average and the performers each make it come to life. Power is excellent and Blondell comes through with one the strongest performances of her career. If you want something a little different and done well enough to invite additional viewings, then you will want to pick up a copy of "Nightmare Alley". P.S.: The Commentary track is well worth a listen.
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