Nightmare Alley (1947)
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
'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.
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.
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.
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.
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")
Tyrone Power is very impressive as Stanton Carlisle, a sideshow hustler who gets a menial job with a cheap carnival and becomes fascinated with a mind-reading act performed by Pete and Zeena (Ian Keith and Joan Blondell). Knowing a good con when he sees one, he learns the tricks of the mind-reading act from Zeena, and seduces her into recreating with him a more spectacular version of the act which relies on a secret word code which enables the spiritualist to discern the questions Carlisle has gathered from patrons in the audience. But soon, Molly (a drop-dead gorgeous Coleen Gray!), a pretty sideshow artist, falls for Carlisle, who is forced by the other Carnival people to marry the girl, and they move to Chicago. Soon, they both start a duo, successful club artist act, reading the minds of upper-class Chiacgo society. One night, a visiting psychologist, Lilith Walker (Helen Walker) is fascinated by Carlisle, and agrees to gives him confidential information about her wealthy clients in return for a substantial cut of the take. Molly, however, finds it increasingly hard to bilk people, and Lilith discovers some damning information about Carlisle form Zeena.
Many of the plot twists are a bit strained and not very credible, and the ultimate downfall of Carlisle seems a bit too far-fetched and extreme to me, but the atmosphere, the crisp photography by Lee Garmes and the acting are all of such high standards, it hardly matters. This was very much Tyrone Power's project, as he wanted to shed his image as just the handsome Saturday matinée-idol, and really wanted to embark on some more ambitious projects in which he could show his talents as a character actor. With this film, he more than proved his capabilities. This is perfect gritty, hard-edged noir, that I can only recommend.
Camera Obscura --- 8/10
The money rolls in but Power wants more. He falls in with a shrink (Walker) who has a closet full of secrets from her clients. With access to these he bamboozles a rich guy into handing over $150K. Power even gets Gray to pose as the man's long dead love, but Gray breaks down when she sees the "chump" fall to his knees and start to pray, and she blows the con. She and Power barely make it out of town ahead of the police. He sends her back to the carnival and begins hitting the bottle. Some time later he shows up at a carnival, a physical and mental shambles, and is given the lowest job available, a "geek" -- somebody who eats live chickens in return for a bottle a day and a place to sleep it off. He's a broken man but finally comes around when he accidentally joins a carnival that Gray is performing in. End of story.
This is well above average. Much of the credit must go to Tyrone Power in what has to be his best dramatic performance. He's always been good at projecting self confidence, and he does it here, but the script also demands that he turn into an alcoholic wreck and he's equally convincing. The other performances are quite good too, including Joan Blondell as a tough but nurturant floozy, and Colleen Gray, the profile of whose nose speaks for itself. She doesn't HAVE to be particularly good. All she has to do is stand there and you can't take your eyes from that baby-doll face.
Jules Furthman's script helps a lot in unobtrusive ways. In most movies of this type, the characters speak as if they had all graduated from Oberlin. Here they sound like real, working-class stiffs of the 30s and 40s -- dropping their "g"s and sayin' "ain't." The odd double negative don't mean nothing' to them. There isn't too much of this louche touch, just enough for it to slip past our apperceptive apparatus without calling attention to itself.
Ben Nye did the makeup. He ought to get a medal for what he does to Tyrone Power's eyes at the end. Power doesn't look grotesque or in any way overdone, but it's as if Dorian Gray's portrait had suddenly been revealed to us halfway through Wilde's tale. His eyes are just short of a gargoyle's. He looks the way we all sometimes feel in the morning.
Withall, I must say that some of the strength of Power's performance comes from corny overacting. He has two modalities in his presentation of self. One is his usual good-natured self-interested wise-guy cynic. The other is a saintly kind of smiling sing-song he employs while trying to con someone. Now, we in the audience know which is which because we've been clued in by what we've learned. But there are times when he uses his con-man persona on people who should know better, including his wife! Colleen Gray too is liable to lapse into emotional outbursts that don't give us the feeling that there's much behind them except energy. These are the kinds of wrinkles it's the director's job to smooth over and he was nodding at the time.
The photography by Lee Garmes is impressive. Great use of shadows and key lights. In fact the whole movie is pretty good. If only Power had stuck to his phony mentalist act and not dragged God kicking and screaming onto the stage. That's known as "hubris" and you know what happens when you pull THAT kind of stunt.
For me, the most telling scene appears near the end, when Power has become a dipsomaniacal hobo. He and a handful of other bums are huddled under a railroad trestle. Power is holding a bottle of whiskey and begins to demonstrate the carny trick called a "cold reading," using the bottle as a prop. Then he shrugs and makes some rueful comment. While he stares silently, the others take his bottle and pass it around. He shakes off his rumination, looks around with fright, and cries, "Hey, where's my bottle? There won't be enough left for me!" A vagrant replies, "Buddy, you're a real mind reader," and drains it. Power yanks the empty bottle from his hand, goggles at it, and then sucks from it desperately. When he looks around, the others are gone and a train is rattling like a calamity over his head. Potent stuff.
It is not a pretty picture - the story of his descent into "geekdom" and he has come through the test quite brilliantly. There is no doubt that the material is disturbing, and such a role would never have been envisaged as going to Power, but he must have fought Fox very hard to get the very different and provocative main part.
He is supported well by Coleen Gray, and particularly Joan Blondell - the rest of the cast shows what the "Carnies" life can be like. The underrated Helen Walker adds to the interest of such an offbeat movie. See it at your own risk of having a feeling of despair.