Sunday, March 14, 2010

#38: Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)

Released: October 9, 1947

Director: Edmund Goulding; Screenplay: Jules Furthman based on the novel written by William Lindsay Gresham; Cinematography: Lee Garmes; Music: Cyril J. Mockridge; Producer: George Jessel; Studio: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Tyrone Power (Stanton “Stan” Carlisle), Joan Blondell (Zeena Krumbein), Coleen Gray (Molly Carlisle), Helen Walker (Lilith Ritter), Taylor Holmes (Ezra Grindle), Mike Mazurki (Bruno), Ian Keith (Pete Krumbein)

- “How can a guy sink so low?”

I suspect this placement might actually be looked at as criminally low, but it’s not getting any easier to separate the films at this point. If anything, the fact that I love 37 other noirs more than Nightmare Alley just speaks to the passion I have for the remaining films in the countdown. Make no mistake, Nightmare Alley is a sinister film noir, one that attempts to explore depths of bleakness and horror that few other contemporary films dared touch upon. The seedy underbelly of the entertainment world that it explores is at times downright sickening. It is filmed with a bizarre quality that arguably matches that of The Lady from Shanghai, which only adds to how uncomfortable one can made while watching it. If it doesn’t quite reach the levels of depravity that it seems to be approaching, it is likely only due to standards of decency in Hollywood of the 1940s.

Based on a novel written by troubled author William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley follows the lives of small-time carnival performers that dream of hitting it big. Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) sees his ticket to international fame in the secrets of a mind-reading act that is tightly guarded by Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her drunk husband Pete (Ian Keith). Zeena and Pete strictly guard the valuable code, not wanting to make the secret known, but when Pete dies from drinking a bottle of bad alcohol, Zeena decides to teach Stan. Despite the help from Zeena, Stan cannot resist the beautiful Molly (Coleen Gray), another carnival worker and soon the two are married and ousted from the traveling carnival. Stan views this as his big break, as he enlists Molly to help him run the act he inherited from Zeena. The act is a rousing success, with “The Great Stanton” and Molly packing swanky nightspots and earning massive wealth. But Stan yearns to grow things even bigger, and when he enlists the assistance of shady psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), he ups the ante even further. Using conversations secretly tape recorded by Lilith, Stanton is able to use private information in his “mind reading” exercises. Stan then begins mercilessly toying with naïve victims before his own fall from grace.

Personally, I don’t think it’s even close; this is the best work of British-born Edmund Goulding’s career. The world that he creates is one of almost inescapable sleaze. This is not to say that all of the characters are completely immoral – both Zeena and Molly demonstrate some admirable qualities and both decide that they have to draw the line somewhere far before where Stan would. But the world, and particularly the industry, in which they operate is thoroughly sordid. A world where broken down men lose all dignity and are reduced to working as geeks just to satisfy their basic (read: alcoholic) needs. Where even well-intentioned performers are still making money by toying with naïve spectators. Even when Stan and Molly are performing in swank nightclubs, catering to a wealthy clientele, things still feel sleazy, as if you are watching a performance that shouldn’t be happening. It just feels too manipulative, even to you as the viewer. The vision of director and cinematographer Lee Garmes align perfectly, with Garmes shooting almost everything to look like a hallucinatory descent toward psychosis.

Nightmare Alley
also features some of the most reprehensible characters in noir, primarily in Stan and psychologist Lilith Walker. Tyrone Power exudes the type of arrogant charisma that is as repugnant to the viewer as it impossible to resist for those that he seduces in the film. His downfall comes when he reaches too far in his ambitions and it begins to appear as if he actually believes that he has these supernatural powers that he has feigned for years. Lilith is equally as revolting, disguising her ambition in more respectable ventures.

And wow… that finish. Frighteningly unforgettable.


  1. "The vision of director and cinematographer Lee Garmes align perfectly, with Garmes shooting almost everything to look like a hallucinatory descent toward psychosis."

    Oh indeed Dave, Garmes's work is among the glories of film noir, and this masterwork did rate as among my runners-up for 1947 on your previous annual countdown. NIGHTMARE ALLEY is THAT good! But as you say, it's hard at this point to separate the level of greatness. I can safely say that this is the greatest film Tyrone Power has starred in (sorry BRIGHAM YOUNG, ha!) The finale is brilliant, again as you rightly note!
    I would say it's a fair stab that it's Goulding's best film, but it's a tough call with the Marx Brothers's comic masterpiece A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, and Oscar Best Picture winner GRAND HOTEL in the mix, while Bette Davis fans would go with DARK VICTORY, but as I say it's a strong position.

    Dave, this is without any shadow of a doubt one of the deepest works of criticism you have penned at this countdowqn or anywhere else! Kudos to you!

  2. My favorite noir with my most favorite actor! A punch in the nose to all detractors who say (said) that Tyrone Power couldn't act.

    (I watched it only once, though, 'coz it's WAY TOO depressing.)

  3. Sam - Thanks for the wonderful compliments! Yes, this one could justifiably be higher, but it's literally splitting hairs at this point. It's still a great film, as are all of those in front of it.

    Quirky Character - Glad to hear you love this film as much as you do. I agree with it being a real downer and not one that I'm likely to put on very often.

  4. Great film! This is definitely one of the most intense noirs out there. It is also so well made. I agree that this is both Goulding and Powell's finest film. The list has now hit its highest gear. I own many of the fox film noir titles and I would place this along with Laura as the best......M.Roca

  5. M.Roca - You're right... things are getting amped up at this point in the countdown. Nothing but the best for the rest of the way!

  6. I love this movie. If I'm remembering correctly, this was Power's baby, and he really pushed for it and fought to get it off the ground. I can't even imagine that studio meeting..."So Zorro and the guy who made Grand Hotel want to make this..." It's a bizarre career move to say the least, and you get the sense that they're all really pushing everything as far as it can possibly go at that time.

  7. Dave, I peeked at the end of the novel once in its Library of America edition. The film has the actual ending ("I was born for it") but then moves forward for its own first horrific then hopeful finish. Anyway, this is probably my favorite Power performance, though Prince of Foxes is my favorite Power film. He's also really good in Abandon Ship at the end of his career. I don't know if its funny or sad that people are still getting away with The Great Stanton's tricks today.

  8. Doniphon - "you get the sense that they're all really pushing everything as far as it can possibly go at that time." - I completely agree on this.

    Samuel - "I don't know if its funny or sad that people are still getting away with The Great Stanton's tricks today." - Another statement that I completely agree with and that is what makes Nightmare Alley unnerving... the fact that stuff like this continues to this day.

  9. For a real treat, try watching Nightmare Alley back-to-back with The Night Of The Locust! I watch Nightmare Alley at least once every 6 confirms my view of humanity.

  10. The title says it all, but course it will come as no surprise that the film was a huge flop because of its' unrelenting sordidness.

    Still a great movie.