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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An old carnival mind-reader launches into his spiel: gazing into his
"crystal ball" (a liquor bottle) he sees rolling green hills, a
barefoot boy running through the grass, a dog at his side... "Yes,
yes!" his listener eagerly confirms, at which the mentalist reveals
it's just a stock reading: "Every boy has a dog," he laughs scornfully.
Nightmare Alley is about the weaknesses of the human mind, the need for
emotional comfort and assurance that leads people to trust tarot cards
and psychics, not to mention religion and psychoanalysis. It's about
how these weaknesses can be exploited and about the high costfor the
Nightmare Alley opens at a seedy carnival offering a strongman, scantily clad girls, a mind-reader, and the "geek," a grotesque and pitiful freak who bites the heads off live chickens for shock entertainment. The carnival is gorgeously filmed, from the sweaty crowds and banners to the foggy, deserted midway late at night. Circulating among the crowds is a new carny-worker, Stanton Carlisle, a gum-chewing hunk in a t-shirt watching the old hands at work. He's particularly intrigued by a verbal code that Zeena, the mentalist, once used in a highly successful mind-reading act, before her partner Pete became a hopeless drunk. Stan is obviously unscrupulous, ambitious, and ready to use his wiles on Zeena, but we don't see his true nature until a scene in which he saves the carnival by bluffing a sheriff (who has come to shut the place down) with a display of his "second sight." His face shining like a choir boy's, he spouts vague, sentimental mumbo-jumbo, manipulating and feeding off the man's emotions until he's putty in Stan's handsand Stan loves every minute of it, reveling in his power, the primal joy of fooling a chump.
We learn that Stan was raised in an orphanage, where the combination of mistreatment and bible verses instilled a deep cynicism about faith and morality. In reform school he learned to get out of trouble by feigning spiritual conversion. Handsome, glib, charming, intelligent and shameless, Stan holds all the cards. He's lucky, too: Pete dies after Stan, who wants to get him drunk to pick his brains, inadvertently gives him wood alcohol instead of moonshine. (No one, including Stan, is ever sure if it was really an accident.) Stan teams up with Zeena and learns the code, then cheats on her with beautiful young Molly, and when they're forced to marry by Molly's enraged former boyfriend, he takes the opportunity to blow the carnival for a high-class nightclub act. Still unsatisfied, Stan drifts into spiritualism, bilking wealthy clients in exchange for contacting their dead loved ones. He finally goes too far, talking his wife into impersonating the ghost of one man's dead sweetheart; and he meets his match in Dr. Lilith Ritter, an icy psychiatrist who conspires with Stan only to cheat him. Since Stan's identity is built on his ability to cheat and feel superior to others, when someone else does the same to him, he falls apart. Stan's crack-up and rapid descent into alcoholic degradation happen a little too fast, but they've been foreshadowed from the beginning. Stan has always had a morbid fascination with the geek, and with Pete's disintegration: they speak to a hollowness at the heart of him, the lack of any love or faith. This one vulnerability in his otherwise hard-boiled character is what allows the audience to care about him, to see him as tragic and not merely a heel who gets what he deserves. The obviously tacked-on "happy" ending is laughable; the love of a good woman won't save this guy.
Matinée idol Tyrone Power, freed from the limitations of swashbuckling, is perfect as Stanton Carlisle, an homme fatale who blatantly exploits his good looks and sex appeal, even making a declaration of love to his wife (maybe honestly, maybe not) to get her to participate in a despicable scheme. It's hard even for the viewer, who sees how callous and selfish Stan is, to resist his oily brilliance and amorality. Power was eager to play this complex and unsympathetic role, and he does it justice, at the end of the movie undergoing a more thorough de-glamorization than any classic Hollywood beauty. Joan Blondell, no longer the bright-eyed cutie of the early '30s, is superb as Zeena: blowsy, aging but still attractive, she's a sharp yet good-hearted woman who sees through Stan, even if she can't fight her yen for him. Colleen Gray looks lovely and acts adequately in the ingenue role of Stan's ever faithful wife Molly, and Helen Walker is chilling as Dr. Ritter, the only person smarter and more ruthless than Stan. Her eyes shine with joy as she reveals what a fool she's made of Stan and cruelly mocks his mental weakness.
Nightmare Alley may be the most inky-black entry in the noir canon. There are no guns, robberies, arrests, or beatings, only the torments of the mind. As Pete says of booze, "The only thing this will help you forget is how to forget." Memory is the waking nightmare.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a brilliant and engaging story turned into a sometimes brutal
character-oriented melodramatic film. Right from the beginning we are
presented with a true enigma did Stan kill Zeena's drunken lover Pete
(Ian Keith)? Was it intentional or unintentional? Even Stan doesn't
seem to know, and this is the genesis of a neurosis that explodes when
he finds himself out-done in the con game by femme-fatale psychologist
Lillith (Helen Walker). Stan's whole world-view seems to be based on
the power of the con, his feeling of superiority when he tricks someone
else out of their money. Even here we have deliberate ambiguity did
Lillith actually trick Stan out of his money? It's possible that she
had never opened the package as she claimed. Was she merely trying to
set Stan up and make him look insane so the authorities wouldn't
suspect her? She might have been telling the truth after all we do
see many signs that Stan's sanity is questionable both before and after
The ambiguity is coupled with repetition of themes that is so deliberate as to make repetition itself a theme in the film. I can't help but think of the way some people with OCD repeat phrases that are significant or important to them but that would seem random to anyone else. It's not used explicitly that way, but it seems that every time that a phrase is repeated (once) it has something to do with Stan's neurosis. First there is Pete's story, which Stan repeats to the hobos as he begins his slide into total madness. And there is also the repetition of the phrase "it takes one to catch one" between Stan and Lillith, and lastly and perhaps most importantly the phrase referring to carnival life "I was made for it". Then couple that with the idea of Zeena and Pete's "code" and you have a very interesting puzzle laying at the heart of this film. The deeper that you get into this mystery, the more you come to realize the reasons for Stan's descent into insanity in my opinion Stan was already a "functioning" psychotic before he even realized what Lillith was up to, for starters. Why else did he start to hallucinate when he was about to get the massage (but never before)? Was it, as he guessed, the presence of Zeena that had brought out the negative association? Or was it the cards she showed him some of the same that she had drawn for Pete before his death? You can actually see a lot in the movie if you just pay attention to the character's clothing and how they use it. In the beginning of the film, Stan wears a cheap imitation tuxedo, which we see him pulling off when he gets ready to con the sheriff in an attempt to look less like a huckster. By the middle of the film Stan is dressing in real tuxedos, and the director draws our attention to the contrast between his clothing and that worn by Zeena and Bruno (Mike Mazurki) when they visit Stan and his wife Molly (B-movie queen Coleen Gray). Also there is a lot going on with Lillith's wardrobe, as she switches from more to less masculine ensembles depending on her professional and personal needs.
I do think that the film is a kind of warning against overweening ambition, done with extraordinary style. The "carnies" represent a moral universe that Stan wants to be part of, but he can't seem to curtail his selfishness even though he's conscious of it as a destructive tendency, and even conscious of the fact that his ego-sickness originates in childhood abandonment.
In a way, Stan's biggest and most dangerous con is himself. His entire sense of self-worth and indeed his identity seems to be bound up in his power over others, which is why he gravitates to the carnival in the first place ("It's like they're on the outside, and I'm on the inside") and why he never settles for what he has but instead pushes higher and higher until his whole universe collapses around him. I think it's significant in this context to return to Zeena's cards and the matter of spirituality in general Stan always says it's for the "suckers" to believe in the cards, but there are several scenes where we as the audience are shown things that make us believe that not only do the cards work but that Stan might himself have some actual psychic powers. So to me this theme is suggesting not, as some have said, that there is no essential difference between religion, psychology, and carnival grifting, but that Stan has made a grave error he loves the con so much and relies on it so much for his ego-satisfaction that he doesn't understand that the ethical limitations placed by carnival society on certain types of grifting are for his own benefit as much as the potential victim's. Stan is so obsessed with the power he gets from using and abusing other people's belief in things like ghosts, Tarot cards, and ESP that he doesn't even consider the possibility that they could be more than just a con. In the end it might not matter whether Lillith is a genuine psychiatrist or a fellow con-artist either way Stan has made himself vulnerable by taking this simple fact for granted and pushing his con too far into deeply personal and spiritual areas, and whether he is the victim of Lillith taking advantage of his own psychological weakness or whether he has set his own trap by trusting too much in his rich victim's need and faith, he's destined for a long trip down nightmare alley.
The ambitious Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power) works in a
sideshow as carny and assistant of the mentalist Zeena Krumbein (Joan
Blondell), who is married with the alcoholic Pete (Ian Keith). The
couple had developed a secret code to pretend to read minds and was
successful in the show business before Pete starts drinking. Stan stays
with them expecting to learn their code and leave the carnival to be a
successful mentalist. Stan also flirts with the gorgeous Molly (Coleen
Gray) that lives in the carnival with the strong Bruno (Mike Mazurki).
Zeena and The Geek, an alcoholic man that bites the head off a live
chicken that the audiences believe that is a savage, are the greatest
attractions of the sideshow.
When Stan gives booze to Pete and he dies, Stan finds that Pete had drunk methyl alcohol and not his booze, but he feels guilty for the death of him. Zeena teaches the code to him and Molly helps Stan to learn them. After an incident, Stan is forced to marry Molly and he decides to move to Chicago with her to become a sensation in a night club. One day, he meets the psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) and he finds that she tapes the sessions with her clients from the high-society. The trickster Stan envisions a scheme to raise a high amount of money swindling rich people. But his ambition brings him back to the life in the sideshow.
"Nightmare Alley" is an impressive and disturbing film-noir, with one of the best performances of Tyrone Power. The dark story of an ambitious man that climbs to the top of the world and bottoms out is very well constructed and supported by magnificent screenplay, direction and performances. Helen Walker is a scary femme fatale and Coleen Gray is gorgeous in the role of Molly. The unforgettable "Nightmare Alley" is certainly among the best film-noir of the cinema history and a must see. My vote is nine.
Title (Brazil): "O Beco das Almas Perdidas" (The Alley of the Lost Souls")
Nightmare Alley is forever known in Hollywood as the film in which
Tyrone Power made a total break with his typecast image, playing a
completely evil and ultimately weak individual. Post World War II,
Power made it clear to Darryl Zanuck that he was looking to expand his
range as an actor. Zanuck reluctantly allowed him to do this film. He
usually indulged his favorite at the studio. Of course he also had a
backup plan just in case Nightmare Alley was a bust.
Well critically it wasn't a bust, Power got deservedly rave reviews for his portrayal of small time hustler and carnival sharpie Stan Carlisle. Power had a variation on his previous roles, he was either a straight out hero as in The Mark Of Zorro, Lloyds Of London, or The Razor's Edge. More often he was a combination hero/heel as in Blood And Sand, The Black Swan or A Yank In The RAF most of all in Rose Of Washington Square, probably the closest part to Stan Carlisle he had played before. Still he was never as unredeemingly evil as in Nightmare Alley on screen until his last completed film, Witness For The Prosecution.
Power is working in a small time carnival where Joan Blondell and Ian Keith have a mind reading act with a good code between them that allows Keith to pull some really strange and good answers out of left field. Power would like to learn it and does after Keith dies when he gets into some wood alcohol. Power then teams with Blondell.
He's forced to marry innocent young Coleen Gray when circus strongman Mike Mazurki thinks he's ruined her reputation. But even with the inconvenience of a wife, Power has his eyes on bigger game. He gets a mind reading act going at a swank Chicago nightclub and then partners with Helen Walker who is a quack psychologist.
Ty Power was great in the role, no question about that, but 1947 must have been a great year for scheming women. Helen Walker never gets the credit she's due for her part. She's every bit as bad as Power and more than up to whatever games he's playing. Her part is very similar to Jane Greer's in Out Of The Past which also came out in 1947.
The critics loved Power in Nightmare Alley, but 20th Century Fox took a big loss from it because the public wouldn't accept Power in so evil a role. Darryl Zanuck absolutely knew this would happen so he hedged his bets a little by withholding from release Captain From Castile, a big budget spectacular where you'll Tyrone Power at his most noble and heroic on screen without a bit of heel shading. That came out within six weeks of Nightmare Alley and Power's fans were appeased.
Power's character was a man essentially out of his depth in going for the big con. But as an actor in Nightmare Alley he expanded his range beyond anything anyone ever expected from him. Now Nightmare Alley is considered a cinema classic and box office bust that it was, it remained a personal favorite among Tyrone Power's films.
Though Darryl Zanuck preferred to forget the experience.
This riveting melodrama of corruption and ambition deals Stan(Tyrone
Power) who along with phony fortune-teller named Zeena(Joan Blondell)
and her drunk husband Pete(Ian Hunter) working the crowd to read mind.
Later Stan conniving a scheming psychiatrist consulting(Helen Walker).
This is a magnificent noir drama of greed packs excellent performances specially by starring role Tyrone Power.Casting is frankly outstanding, giving extraordinaries acting, as Joan Blondell as the tarots expert, the alcoholic Ian Hunter, the robust Mike Mazurski, gorgeous Colleen Gray and the mean psychiatrist Helen Walker, among them. It exposes and denounces the flamboyant illusionists, fake spiritualists and discredited impostors spreading through America at the time . Critics applauded this interesting black drama of carnival life but lukewarm reception by public. Based on strange and controversial novel by William Lindsay obsessed by dark issues and who also committed suicide such as director. Tyrone Power in his most unusual character as the fake mentalist, an amoral and ambitious role who predicts past and future.This was the Power's best part ever.
This broody and thought-provoking picture is splendidly directed by Edmung Goulding(1891 London-1959 US ending his days committing suicide). He begun as boy actor and emigrated to America after service in WWI , became one of Hollywood's finest discoverer of the talents of its leading actress, as Joan Crawford in ¨Grand Hotel¨ and Bette Davis in ¨The great lie, The old maid and Dark victory¨ in which their relationship reached full flower. In the 40s Goulding tried something different and during his stay at Twentieth Century-Fox directed two Tyrone Power vehicles, ¨Razor's Edge¨and ¨Nightmare alley¨. But he didn't attain his wishes of winning a best director Oscar, though ¨The Razor's edge¨achieved nomination in the best film category. However ¨Nighmare alley¨, his best movie, didn't win prizes , neither nomination in spite of being a masterpiece and probably one of the most atypical from its time. Rating : top-notch classic, a must see and indispensable watching.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Even Judged by film noir standards, "Nightmare Alley" is irredeemably
bleak. Its story involves scams, swindles, deceptions and betrayals as
well as the ruthless exploitation of people who are either gullible,
vulnerable or simply unwitting victims of treachery practised by those
in whom they'd placed their trust. The central character's elevation
from being a charismatic opportunist in a carnival to being a
sophisticated nightclub mentalist is fascinating to watch but his
inability to recognise his own limitations leads inevitably to the
movie's most tragic and uncomfortable scenes.
Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is a drifter who joins the carnival and quickly becomes interested in the mind reading act performed by Zeena Krumbein (Joan Blondell). He soon gets a job as her assistant and gets to know her alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith). Pete's predicament had been brought on by Zeena's past indiscretions and his level of degradation is only surpassed by that of the carnival "geek" (a debased human being who bites the heads off live chickens for the price of a bottle a day and somewhere to sleep it off).
Stan finds out from Molly (Coleen Gray), who is the assistant to the carnival strongman that Zeena and Pete used to be a top of the bill act in vaudeville and that their success was achieved by using an intricate word code. He subsequently charms Zeena into teaching him the code and later seduces Molly.
Stan and Molly leave the carnival and find great success with their new act in an exclusive venue in Chicago. During one of their performances a psychologist called Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) tries to trick them by asking a question about her mother but is both surprised and impressed when Stan accurately replies that her mother is deceased. Stan and Lileth meet some time later in her office and when he realises that she routinely records the confidential information disclosed by her wealthy clients, sees an opportunity to use this material to move into a new role as a spiritualist.
Lileth, Stan and Molly subsequently conspire together to carry out an elaborate and potentially very lucrative stunt but when Molly becomes uncomfortable with the religious style which Stan adopts, she exposes the fraud. Stan is also then betrayed and swindled by Lilith. This sudden financial loss and the loss of his reputation combined with some feelings of guilt that he'd been harbouring for some time, ultimately bring about his spectacular and tragic downfall.
"Nightmare Alley" was not a box office success when it was first released and the cult status that it's since gained was due to the fact that a legal dispute over distribution rights led to it being unavailable for many years. This is a shame because it's a movie that deserves recognition on its own merits, Its story is engrossing and the portrayals of its colourful characters are top class. Tyrone Power is exceptional as the selfish conman who discovers that by using his considerable charm he's easily able to exploit others for his own gain. Coleen Gray is thoroughly believable as the unsophisticated and likable Molly and Ian Keith and Joan Blondell also contribute great performances. The most chilling characterisation, however, is provided by Helen Walker who is absolutely convincing as one of the coldest, most calculating and inherently evil women ever seen on screen. The low key lighting used by cinematographer Lee Garmes also perfectly matches the downbeat mood of the film and contributes strongly to its haunting atmosphere.
A near perfect noir and yet, at the time of release, spurned by the studio themselves. Well, that's Hollywood! Anyway, we now have a superb DVD release and can all enjoy this wonderful film. From the great opening to the very end , this is all good, if very downbeat storytelling. Actually, a 'happy ending' has been tacked on at the very end, but I wouldn't imagine after all that has happened by then anyone would be taken in by it. there is a solid performance from Joan Blondell as the slightly, going to seed, 'mind act' performer and tarot enthusiast, Coleen Gray as the innocent would be femme fatale and a brilliant turn by Helen walker as the real thing with bells on. Wow, it is such a great performance, sexy, lovable but pure steel beneath the skin, a performance all the more impressive seeing as she was still recovering from a car crash and had limited movement. Mind you with such looks to kill, she had she didn't need to move very much. Tyrone Power turns in the performance of his career and it is a tragedy for him and for cinema that the studio should have so made certain that he did not get the re-launch he so wanted with this. This film is an absolute must see and you can be sure that whatever you are expecting you will be pleasantly surprised.
so well portrayed and menacingly so in this dark film. I had remembered
this title from decades ago, watching it with my Mom while still in
grade school. The phrase "nightmare alley" is all the images it
invokes, haunting and ominous. Even the soundtrack at times seem to
foreshadow a very grim and frightening revelation of human nature.
Tyrone Power as a cynical carnival con-man, at first learns the code from Zeena (well-portrayed by Joan Blondell, who is married to an ill- fated alcoholic.). Power has the gift of persuasion and to defraud the public, a talent used by politicians and used car-salesmen alike. He soon finds his talent can garner a lucrative career as "mentalist", (a term used in the early days for psychic seers/fortune tellers).
Where the story takes its most cynical turn is upon his acquaintance with Dr. Ritter, a psychologist who tape records her patients, and she joins forces with Power in fraud with higher stakes, wealthy clients, and shameless manipulation, all in the name of psychic healing.
Interesting that Freudian psychoanalysis was reaching its popularity during this time period, I am intrigued to learn more about the director, Edmund Goulding and his own, very real suicide. Highly recommended. Do not watch if you are in a depressive mode, however. 9/10.
Tyrone Power always wanted to be considered an actor first, studly
leading man second. It was not to be, though, as his public preferred
the latter to the former. A recent book, "The Star Machine", goes into
detail on the subject.
'Nightmare Alley' makes a strong case for his contention and is arguably his best performance (also check "the Eddie Duchin Story" and "Witness For The Prosecution"). I really think it should be on the AFI's all-time list, although it was a flop when first released. Can't find too many flaws in it - one could argue it should have been in color, but it is a Film Noir and color would diminish the overall feel of the film. Helen Walker is as lovely as she is treacherous and Colleen Gray is just passable. Old Pro Joan Blondell is effective as is Ian Keith.
'Nightmare Alley' is a very underrated and unheralded picture with a lot going for it, and is perhaps Director Edmund Goulding's best effort.
In Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power is like the George Clooney of the
1940s, yet in a role with a pathetic side that Clooney has never dared
to play. His cool, his eyes, his placid stance and walk, and his
immovable self-confidence. Power is however more intense in this role
than Clooney has ever been in any of his roles. Colleen Grey, the
female lead, is one of the sexiest knockouts I've ever seen. I am sold
when she first appears in her circus uniform, the glittery skivvies
revealing that she is not skinny, but given to thick curves, especially
in her smolderingly pliable and smooth hips. She plays a good-girl
role, the role she always hated to play, wishing she had roles like
Helen Walker's, who plays a wicked psychologist, and quite well.
The story is an interesting weaving of a con game, a horrific tale of descent, and a rags-to-riches story of luck. It's intriguing. Nightmare Alley is true film noir, whether it has gangs and guns or not, because we follow a main character who is suave and personable to without a conscience and almost a little ashamed of it. There are clever crimes, wicked antagonists, and dark, cutting cinematography. It's a must for noir fans.
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