Nightmare Alley (1947)
Written by Jules Furthman
Directed by Edmund Goulding
When I sat down to watch the original Nightmare Alley, I wasn’t prepared to be hit with such a spectacular film. I expected it would be a decent, pulpy sort of tale but the performances, cinematography, and music were far beyond the bar I’d set in my head. I turned to Ariana during our viewing to make sure I didn’t imagine how amazing this movie is, and she confirmed that she, too, was blown away. For just two years post-WWII, this movie looks ahead of its time. The plot is incredibly complex and can’t simply be boiled down to a single sentence. There are so many supporting characters who are given the type of nuance and complexity we often associate with modern cinema. But here it is, punching far above the weight of most movies and delivering one of the darkest endings I’ve seen from a film of this era.
Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is a carnival barker fascinated by this seedy subculture. His attention is drawn to the geek, a mentally ill performer who bites the heads off live chickens. Stanton wonders how a man becomes as degraded as that. He begins working with Madam Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic ex-husband Peter (Ian Keith). They run a medium show and use some tricks and codes to convince the audience mind-reading is possible. Stanton learns the couple has a secret code that made them hits on the vaudeville circuit, but they keep it a close secret. He begins to seduce Zeena with plans to get the code, leave the carnival and make it rich. As is the case with these sorts of things, it’s easier said than done, and so we begin a bleak story of the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle.
The first thing that struck me was the cinematography done here by Lee Garmes. The use of lighting and the choice of how our characters are framed kept the film bobbing up and down in a swampy mire of depravity. A sense of bleakness soaks through the film, aided by a quasi-religious script that is really drilling down to the fundamental nature of human existence. The film particularly delights in presenting the old-fashioned concept of the Wheel of Fortune, that you will have an equally devastating failure for every success. The camerawork feels like something a couple decades ahead of its time, like a more contemporary film shot in the style of the late 1940s noir pictures. As soon as the film begins, it will be near impossible for the audience not to be swept up in the atmosphere.
Tyrone Power was known for being a dashing charismatic lead in swashbuckler-type movies. This makes him the perfect choice because the audience entered with a set of expectations that the picture immediately begins to upend. His natural charisma is undoubtedly a vital piece of the story that even without supernatural powers, he’s able to charm his way out of a jam or experiences just plain dumb luck. He sees everyone as useful until they aren’t, and then they’re just an obstacle in his way. The story lets that hubris build and build until what Stanton has constructed comes tumbling down around him, the architect of his own misery. It’s just about as perfect a noir story as you can get.
Not only is Tyrone Power absolutely amazing as Stanton, but he’s also surrounded by one of the best supporting casts I’ve seen from a film made at this time. The stand out for me is Ian Keith as the tragic drunk Peter. This character easily could have been presented as a one-dimensional lush, the butt of a joke who doesn’t serve much of a purpose in the greater narrative. Instead, he is given a monologue that will tear out your heart, lamenting the pain he’s experienced in his life. Peter also stands as a signpost, a warning that Stanton will inevitably ignore and keep speeding right past.
The three actors billed just under Powers are the three lead female members of the cast, each representing a stage in his time as a performer. There’s, of course, Zeena, played by Joan Blondell. The closest thing he has to a love interest is Molly (Coleen Gray), a woman he seeks out only because she’s young & pretty. After being found out, they end up having a shotgun wedding, and then he proceeds to ruin her throughout their relationship. The most compelling and complicated relationship he has is with psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker). Ritter serves as the devil on Stanton’s shoulder that he would never ignore because there’s no angel on the other side. She reveals herself as having no decency or discretion about her clients and allows Stanton to mine her detailed records to exploit these people.
The film has no hesitation in absolutely destroying the worst of these characters, allowing them to suffer an almost biblical scourge, losing everything they have and ending up face down in the mud. Nightmare Alley is certainly not a movie to watch when you feel down. However, if you are in the mood for pitch-perfect film noir, a story that is both gorgeously produced and yet feels disgusting to watch play out, you’ll have a hard time finding something as good as this classic piece of cinema.