Friday Editor’s Pick: Nightmare Alley (1947)

by on November 4, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Nov 11 at 9:15 at 92YTribeca [Program & Tix]


Nic & Nick (that’s critics Rapold & Pinkerton) strike again with their recurring, self-explanatory series “Overdue.”


Guy Maddin, upon programming the film at the Pacific Film Archive:

Wildly unpredictable circus and penthouse noir with gorgeous scumbag Tyrone Power, at the height of his doomed charms, attempting to juggle romances with the useful-but-worn-out seer Zeena Krumbein (perennially blowsy Joan Blondell) and yummy youth Colleen Gray (fresh from Richard Widmark’s Kiss of Death; and, more importantly, the title character of 1960’s hugely underrated Leechwoman) while concocting a lucrative ballroom-psychic scam, and keeping at bay the nipping jaws of the ever-howling circus geek, the tormented soul who stares back up at Power from the slightly reflective depths of his own personal moral abyss. After viewing this picaresque and cathartic film, you will never again misuse the word “geek.”



Nick Tosches, reprinted in an anthology of his writing:

In more moods than not, I think of it as my favorite movie. I first saw it, on television, as a kid. It was the first picture without monsters that I thought of as a monster picture. After epigraphs from T.S. Eliot and Petronius, the novel Nightmare Alley opens with the line, “Stan Carlisle stood back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek.” Little does he know he is beholding his own future.


And that is what the movie, like the novel, is about: one man’s metamorphosis, his bizarre and fated descent to geekdom. But it is about much more as well: forbidden cons and unspeakable rackets, the horrors of greed and soullessness. to me, it is a film in a class by itself. Its concocted, last-minute happy ending notwithstanding, it stands today as one of the darkest, most psychologically chilling pictures ever made. For infallible truth, pallie, hear me: this is one movie worth seeing again and again, one movie worth owning, one movie that is based on a borderline brilliant book and is in some ways better than the book.


Richard Brody in a video essay for the New Yorker:


Director Stuart Gordon for Trailers From Hell:


Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

This dark and determinedly sleazy 1947 film comes as quite a surprise from its director—Edmund Goulding, whose specialty through the 30s, in films like Grand Hotel and The Old Maid, was his inveterate tastefulness (although, come to think of it, the sleaze of Nightmare Alley has a suspicious gloss). Tyrone Power stars as a sideshow barker who successfully promotes himself as a mind reader, only to have his ruthlessness catch up with him in a finale that still seems shockingly draconian, particularly where a matinee idol like Power is concerned. A fascinating anomaly.


Elvis Mitchell for the New York Times:

The vivid, hard-boiled dialogue of ”Alley,” allows Power to use his charm ruthlessly. The director, Edmund Goulding, keeps the action moving, and the cast — including the luminous young Coleen Gray — is unusually loose with the tangy dialogue. The sharp black-and-white cinematography by Lee Garmes gives the movie an extra lift; you could get lost in the depth and clarity of his compositions.


Power’s performance is deft and real: when he pulls off his cheap dickey to wipe his brow and ready himself for action, it’s a believable throw-away moment. The hoodwink-picture genre doesn’t have a whole lot of peaks to choose from, but ”Nightmare Alley” is one of the few.


Incidentally, Pedro Almodóvar selected the film for a sidebar in this week’s AFI Fest in Los Angeles. In his program notes:

Totally unknown in Spain, for me this was one of the discoveries of this summer. I was never an admirer of Tyrone Power, but I admit that in this film he radiates power (mental, sexual and interpretive). Tyrone Power has one of those faces without edges or angles, more suitable for courting leading ladies than for provoking fear and much less for feeling it. Here he overcomes the cliché to which Hollywood usually condemned the handsome actors of his time.

Besides the voraciously ambitious character played by Tyrone Power, there is a secondary character who lives on the lowest rung of human degradation, a terminal alcoholic they call the “geek” because he devours raw animals in front of the spectators. Only after his “performance” does he receive the reward of his daily allowance of alcohol. He is one of the most horrifying characters I remember in a film that isn’t a horror film. The ending is sordid and moving, humble in form, without adornments, but terrifying.


J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:

Nightmare Alley was a wannabe Kane. This 1947 account of an archetypal American’s rise and fall is neither a great movie nor even a classic noir but it has a great ambition to be daring and, once seen, is not easily forgotten. The movie suggested far more than it showed but what it showed, including the climactic degradation of 20th Century Fox’s then-major star Tyrone Power, was remarkably sordid for so high-profile a release.


Excitingly tawdry, this backstage excursion through the showbiz lower depths was based on the doggedly poetic pulp novel by William Lindsay Gresham (perhaps the only drugstore shocker inspired by T.S. Eliot). The project was evidently initiated at Power’s request and involved a number of high-powered professionals. Howard Hawks associate Jules Furthman wrote the hard-boiled adaptation for high-gloss director Edmund Goulding; Sternberg cameraman Lee Garmes provided the opalescent cinematography. The early sequences are nearly timeless in introducing the carnival world of marks and rubes, Gypsy fortune-tellers, dimwitted strongmen, and the unseen geek—a broken-down alcoholic who bites the heads off live chickens for a daily bottle of booze and a place to sleep it off.


It’s tempting to read Nightmare Alley as an allegory about what the religion of showbiz gives an audience. The movie eluded the Production Code in several small ways, mainly allowing its antihero to enjoy sexual dalliances outside of marriage and its villainess to escape unpunished. The fake redemptive ending doesn’t mitigate the sordid trajectory—or the movie’s too obvious sense of being pleased with itself, as expressed in Dr. Ritter’s ostentatiously grown-up view of human nature. “You’re a perfectly normal human being,” she coolly tells Stan. “Selfish and ruthless when you want something, kind and generous when you’ve got it.”



Michael Atkinson for Movieline:

One of the oddest noirs of the ’40s […] For an actor whose specialties were explorers, swashbucklers and dashing romantics to play a carnival scam artist who rises to celebrity and then crashes down to geekhood is borderline perverse. But it works. Power’s seductive beauty, winning simplicity and heat-lightning smile take on an edge as they become his character’s means to rip off the world. As Power employs his looks and charisma to fuel Stan’s charm, it becomes apparent that Stan’s shtick isn’t far from Power’s own–that using one’s long eyelashes and perfect teeth to cheat a mark isn’t so different from using them to become a movie star.


Because Power is a completely unself-conscious actor, Stan utters every cock-and-bull thing he says with total sincerity. It’s fine that Power never signals us that Stan is lying, because he’s lying all the time. As Stan climbs from carny pit to nightclub eminence with a clairvoyance grift, Power beams with the conviction and ego of a matinee idol confused between illusion and reality.


But Power’s fluency with Stan’s duplicitous success is one thing-that’s part of being a star. Stan’s descent into the maelstrom is a whole other bag of chips. After getting caught red-handed in an outrageous con, Stan runs for it and devolves from a polished trickster to a roadside rumpot. Doom falls over him like a black blanket. In the final act when he’s hitting up a carny boss for a job, Power gives him the look of a man who’s been hit by a two-ton truck. Power the movie star has erased the natural burnish right off his face. When Stan looks up from downing a shot and tries for a personable, “Oh that’s very refreshing,” Power shows us such chillingly bruised eyes that we can’t help feeling we’re getting a cold glimpse of many an actor’s foreshortened career, including Power’s own. And when Stan is offered the job as the show’s resident geek-a man who bites off live chicken heads for a bottle and a bunk-Power hisses with what sounds like genuine self-knowledge, “Mister, I was made for it.” Without his youthful good looks and confidence, what’s left to a romantic lead? Power seemed genuinely to see the future in the final segment of Nightmare Alley (he was dead at 45), and to stare it straight in the eye.


Imogen Sara Smith in her new book In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City:

A ruthless film, Nightmare Alley pinpoints the irony of the mind-reading scam in which the appearance of uncanny sympathetic understanding, a luminous glimpse into the human heart, is just a way of bilking money out of suckers […] Hollywood analysts are generally portrayed as either benevolent miracle-workers or malevolent hypnotists; Lilith Ritter is surely the most chilling of all – indeed one of the most frightening characters in noir. Her eyes shine and her cheeks dimple with joy as she reveals her advantage over Stan and cruelly belittles him.


Until the last minute-brightening, Nightmare Alley is one of the blackest entries in the noir canon. There are no gangsters, guns, robberies, arrests or beating; no hard-boiled patter or urban menace. there is only the descent of a man for whom the the world is divided between hustlers and suckers, a man who can feign connection with other people but never feel it. He’s trapped not in a bottle, but in his own mind, whose fragility and constraints are revealed to him by Lilith. This is the true noir landscape.


Ed Howard for Only the Cinema:

It’s fascinating to watch the sweet, innocent Molly hoodwinked by Stan, even as he himself gets tangled up with a calculating psychiatrist, Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who sees one of his acts and gets interested in him. The interplay between Stan and Lilith is a study in power struggles and mutual manipulation, as Stan thinks he’s using the psychiatrist for her connections to wealthy society people. But, in a potent scene late in the film, the rug gets pulled out from under Stan, to the point that he begins questioning his own sanity, unsure of what’s been real and what’s been a con, not knowing if he’s losing his mind or being brilliantly played. Goulding, ingeniously, allows the audience to wonder as well. Walker plays this scene with a hint of menace, an undercurrent of knowing manipulation, wrapped up in sincerity and bursts of seemingly genuine confusion. As the psychiatrist winds around her patient in the dark, the shadows making a cruel mask of her face, the audience is left to wonder what’s truth and what’s lies — to think back on what had already happened and wonder if there had been an elaborate long con running, and if so where the deceit had begun, how far back the web of lies stretched. The uncertainty places the viewer into Stan’s position, concocting paranoid conspiracy theories, lost in the dark, feeling used and betrayed.


This is Stan’s comeuppance, one explanation for how a man can get so low, how a man becomes the Geek. It is, in some ways, a divine justice, a form of destiny or punishment from above: the film’s script is full of allusions to destiny, to the magic of the Tarot deck, and to God and the Christian Bible. There is an increasingly religious fervor to Stan’s psychic performances, as he puts his audiences in touch with dead relatives and uses the rhetoric of the church pulpit as fodder for entertainment and spectacle. To him, religion is just another con, and Molly, growing afraid as he crosses the blurry line from entertainer to con artist, begs him not to invoke the wrath of God by playing the role of a spiritualist. But Stan has a literalist’s understanding of religion; he believes, or tries to convince Molly that he believes, that because he never explicitly mentions God, then he is free of blasphemy. It’s as though he’s even trying to con God, to sneak by on a technicality. In the end, though, as Stan semi-consciously falls lower and lower until he’s mirroring first Pete and then the lowly Geek, the film suggests that there’s no way to con destiny, no way to avoid the inevitable and awful descent into pathetic ruin.


Woody Haut for Masters of Cinema:

What makes Nightmare Alley different from other films in the genre is not merely its bleak perspective, but its cinematic and narrative symmetry. But then this is a film adapted from what is probably the only pulp novel to be influenced by T.S. Eliot and the tarot deck. Consequently, shots and lines are repeated throughout the movie. One notes this in scenes in which the camera focuses on the back of Stan’s head, as though to convey his opacity and his vulnerability. Then there’s Pete’s speech, in which his beloved bottle becomes a crystal ball, reiterated by Stan in the film’s finale. Or Stan saying to Zeena, regarding the carnival geek, “I can’t understand how a man can get that low,” not knowing the same will be said of him. This concern with symmetry is also apparent when Zeena reads the cards, the meaning of which the hubristic but good-natured Stan can neither see nor accept. Then, after Stan and Molly’s heart-to-heart about God, which becomes the point on which the plot takes a final turn, leading to Stan’s downfall and redemption, Stan and Molly’s relationship becomes the mirror image of Pete and Zeena’s in the first act.


In terms of perspective, Goulding’s film, though diluting Gresham’s politics, goes further than other movies released in 1947 not only because Nightmare Alley ridicules authority – law enforcers, psychologists, industrialists – but because it refutes any notion of get-up-and-go capitalism. Consequently, Nightmare Alley can best be compared to Polonsky’s 1948 Force of Evil, for both films depict the predatory forces in the modern success story. While Polonsky uses the number’s racket as his primary metaphor, Nightmare Alley plays upon the idea that the culture is based on scams meant to exploit people’s needs. In Goulding’s film, everyone is cheating someone, whether carnies, mind-readers, psychotherapists, or wealthy businessmen. While in the communal world of the carny there exists a code of ethics largely absent in the outside world. Carnies might regard outsiders with contempt, but their trickery is small-time and for purposes of entertainment. Problems only arise for Stanton when he attempts to use such trickery to move up the economic ladder. But Stan’s take on the world is warped from the beginning. “See those yokels,” he says to Zeena,“it gives you a superior feeling. As if you were on the know, and they’re on the outside looking in.” Yet it’s ambiguous whether Nightmare Alley is saying it’s human nature to con others, or if conning someone is evidence of a corrupt culture in which, to get ahead, one must prey on the weakness of others.



Tom Huddleston for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Although classified as noir Nightmare Alley exists on the very fringes of that broad genre, toying with the clichés, finding a vibrant new backdrop for the expected blend of murder, intrigue and psychosis. Carlisle is a classic noir hero, seemingly hard-bitten but with a fearful, self destructive centre. His relationship with Helen Walker’s steely femme fatale Lilith Ritter — seduction, treachery, criminal conspiracy — fits perfectly. But Lilith is far from the standard ‘40’s female lead, she’s a respected doctor, a seductive society girl, but also a frank sexual predator, repeatedly masculinised in both dress and speech. In fact, all three central female characters break their respective moulds—Zeena never plots revenge for Carlisle’s traitorous behaviour, choosing instead to forgive him. Even Carlisle’s wife Molly, for much of the film the standard doe-eyed bride, takes her leave of him at the end. None of these women are broken by their encounters with Carlisle, indeed each of them seems strengthened, lent new resolve by his selfish mistreatment.


Now rediscovered, Nightmare Alley stands as a unique experiment, a twisted curio and a rare example of a Hollywood A-picture that genuinely resists classification. The toying with truth and reality is perhaps the film’s most astonishing trait. Carlisle asserts time and again that he is nothing more than a fake, but there are repeated moments where he and other characters seem to achieve flashes of genuine insight, moments of real psychic ability. As an audience, we must be just as willing to fall for misdirection and fakery as the smalltown hicks onscreen, or the characters themselves, who one by one fall victim to deceit and treachery, even Carlisle himself. And of course the filmmakers are as guilty as their creations, the cinema itself just another way to shill the rubes.


– Compiled by Brynn White

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