This was our Saturday pizza and bad movie offering. The movie was good, but boy, was it depressing little film noir.
Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Tyrone Power) finds himself fascinated by everything at the carnival. How does one sink so low as to work as the “geek,” eating live chickens?
“It can happen,” says Madam Zeena (Joan Blondell). Stan works as a barker for the mentalist show Madam Zeena performs with her drunken husband, Pete (Ian Keith). Stan is grateful for the opportunity. He feels great sticking it to the rubes. He was “made for it,” in what becomes a tagline.
One night, Stan buys a bottle of moonshine. When Pete comes along, he stows it in a trunk because he doesn’t want to get in Dutch with Zeena. However, Pete is in such a sorry state that Stan reaches inside the trunk and passes the bottle on. The next morning, Pete doesn’t wake up. The empty bottle next to him is not the one Pete bought, but one of Zeena’s stage props, a bottle of woods alcohol.
“Pete wouldn’t drink this!” Zeena says.
Stan looks into the trunk. His bottle is still there.
Stan quickly makes himself indispensable to the carnival, not just to Zeena. Zeena teaches him a code, using words and syllable stresses, she and Pete used when they were on the top of vaudeville in a mindreading act. They charm audiences. Using cold reading techniques, he learned from Pete, talks a sheriff out of investigating the carnival. He makes a play first for Zeena, then for a younger woman, Molly (Coleen Gray), the object of affection of the circus strong man, Bruno (Mike Mazurki). This leads to their expulsion from the carnival.
Stan and Molly marry and set out on their own, using the mind-reading act in nightclubs. They’ve made the big time. They just didn’t count the perception of some in their audiences.
While things are going so well, Stan decides to take things one step further and get into the “spook” business,” that is, communicating with (*cough*) spirit world. He’ll need the help of one more corrupt partner.
You can fool some of the people, according to the old saw. Stan has a bit of Icarus in him as well, flying too close to the sun.
This is a cautionary tale and a warning against demon rum and getting too greedy. The main character is unsympathetic, yet he comes from a background that might have lent him some sympathy from viewers. He was abandoned by his parents, raised in an orphanage where he was beaten and abused until he ran away. He’s had to make his own way in the world. Zeena gave him a break.
Three strong female roles play in this movie: first, Zeena, followed by Molly, and finally Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), a psychologist. Molly is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the movie. She loves Stan, but she is hardly a doormat. At one point, she is ready to leave him.
The story also points out that those deceived by these tricks also enjoy it (to a point) because the deception gives them hope. One might accept harmless little practical jokes as simple entertainment, but the bilking of people out of money for communication with deceased loved ones or “cures” is an entirely different matter.
This movie was a departure for Tyrone Power, who generally played romantic or swashbuckling roles in films such as The Mark of Zorro (1940). (The Razor’s Edge (1946), about a traumatized WWI veteran, another departure, was made when Power returned from active duty after WWII.) Power read the novel on which Nightmare Alley is based, a book of the same name written by William Lindsay Gresham, and thought it would make a great movie. The movie is good, and Power’s acting was praised, but the film didn’t do well at the box office. Perhaps it was too dark a story.
In short, Nightmare Alley is powerful film noir. It’s not for the kiddies, though. There’s no sex or violence to speak of, but the matters it deals with are thoughtful and pretty damn depressing.
This movie is being remade and is schedule to be released in December 2021.
Nightmare Alley can be watched here.
Title: Nightmare Alley (1947)
Jules Furthman (screenplay)
William Lindsay Gresham (novel)
Tyrone Power as Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle
Joan Blondell as Zeena Krumbein
Coleen Gray as Molly
Helen Walker as Lilith Ritter
Taylor Holmes as Ezra Grindle
Mike Mazurki as Bruno
Length: 1 hour, 50 minutes