Wednesday, November 09, 2011


The sleazy, claustrophobic, catch-as-catch-can transience of the carnival world, with its ever-changing roster of freaks, geeks, disappointed con men and women with few options, clinging to shreds of dignity and eyeing a better life while digging themselves deeper into the one from which they want to flee, seems a naturally cinematic subject. Yet there are surprisingly few movies that have ever captured the symbiotic push-pull of vibrant show-biz fakery and dark personal obsessions that lurk behind the curtain, beyond the barker’s call. Somewhere between the boy’s wish-fulfillment of Toby Tyler and the mind-wrenching funhouse mirror reflections of Tod Browning, Tobe Hooper and Rob Zombie, Edmund Goulding’s film of W.L. Greshman’s Nightmare Alley (1947), from a script by Jules Furthman (reportedly quite faithful to the novel), captures the attraction of the fairway for the suckers and the sham artists running the games, as well as the desperation to trade the sawdust floors of tented arenas for brighter, shinier halls where the sheep waiting to be fleeced have thicker wool and far deeper pockets.

Watching Nightmare Alley today, it’s plain to see that while the divide between the carnies and the upper classes awash in dough is as marked as ever (maybe more so), the desperation for recognition, for reward, is no longer a simple symptom of poverty. But in 1947 it must have been quite a shock to see a handsome star like Tyrone Power give himself over to a role for which audiences wouldn’t have been expected to have much empathy. Power’s opportunistic Stan Carlisle is so thoroughly at home amongst the shadows and hidden compartments of the carnival setting that it’s almost a surprise to hear that he has aspirations beyond it. However, his eagerness to expand his talents to more sophisticated scams for more sophisticated targets soon sucks in both the essentially good-natured Zeena (Joan Blondell) and the relatively innocent Molly (Colleen Gray) into a world where the lies get bigger, thornier, more perverse, and the inevitable fall back to earth is all the more devastating.

Cinematographer Lee Garmes brilliantly conjures the film’s first half in chiaroscuro patterns and recesses formed by the impermanent tents and wagons, all of which coexist almost subconsciously with the ballrooms and theaters of the slightly less compelling second half. But Nightmare Alley’s central power lies in the faces of its actors, the carnival life lived as painted in creases on their faces, in smiles and banter meant to hide the truth, in haunted looks and, conversely, averted eyes. Joan Blondell is smashing as Zeena, accidentally widowed by Stan’s (subconscious?) enabling of her alcoholic husband. She carries the weight of an entire disappointed life in her big, beautiful, forlorn eyes.

As for Power, he couldn’t have been, and probably never was better than he was in this movie. Critic Charles Taylor observes about Power’s towering performance that the actor conjures Stan’s essence in that “he manages always to look away from anyone declaring any tenderness for him… His gaze is always fixed on where he’s going.” The commitment which Power, Goulding and Furthman show toward Gresham’s concept of Stan’s corruption is that which Hitchcock could not follow through on in flirting with villainy for Cary Grant in Suspicion. The blasphemous blackness in Stan’s heart is given near full reign down the darkest nightmare-fueled alleys in the film; it sticks its chilling effect in our hearts like a stake pounded into soft ground, a stake meant to anchor a carnival tent in place long enough to provide cover while the movie takes us for all we’re worth.

(Nightmare Alley screens Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. at the Lloyd Rigler Auditorium at the Egyptian Theater as one of AFI Fest 2011 Artistic Director Pedro Almodovar's personal selections for the general program. Information on the entirety of offerings at this year's AFI Fest, as well as information on how to obtain free tickets to screenings throughout the festival run, can be found by clicking here.)



Vanwall said...

Nicely done! One of my faves, and Power is awesomely slimy in this one, subverting one's expectations of what kind of role it would be from that period. Helen Walker is goddam amazing. I wrote about it once:
My Nightmare

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Oh, wow. Twice in one month that I'm not insanely jealous of a film writer on the coasts. Nightmare Alley is showing in my own hometown in a couple of weeks. It's one of my favorite movies. I wrote about it for the big film noir blogathon earlier this year. I'll be glad to FINALLY see it on a big screen.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Vanwall, Vulnavia, for the links. Your pieces on this movie are excellent indeed. I really liked your analogy to horror films, VM, and Vanwall, your personal nightmare might have been scarring, but it made for a fine read. I love this kind of unexpected, uncomfortably close encounter with a movie.

Vulnavia, also don't miss Leave Her to Heaven on the big screen if you can help it. Gorgeous and scary at the same time.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Dennis!

I'm totally there for Leave Her To Heaven (and the rest of the series, too). I've seen Leave Her to Heaven on the big screen before, and you're right, it's utterly gorgeous. I'm looking forward to revisiting it. I'm really looking forward to seeing the films I haven't seen on a big screen. I saw Raw Deal on Tuesday and it was amazing. I think that's the first time I've seen a John Alton film noir in a theater. I need to do that again.

Anonymous said...

Just finished watching my copy from Netflix a moment ago and I can't believe that I knew nothing about this film? I love film noir and have perused different sites that specialize and publish articles but do not recall ever seeing it on a list? This film is terrific I can't thank you enough for your good work here Sir. I would also like to encourage you to do more podcasting. I think I have only heard you interviewed once but it was a good listen and you ought to do more I would like to hear it. Thanks again..

I am wondering if the happy ending was something the studio insisted on or what? I thought the best natural place to end it was a few minutes before when their is a wipe and it cuts to him as the hobo doing Pete's routine about looking into the crystal. Everything after that felt tacked on. I will give the commentary a listen I have a feeling that the answer may be there. x

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Anonymous: Sincere thanks for your comment. I'm very glad to have helped get this movie in front of eyes that had never seen it. As for podcasting, I always enjoy sitting down in these situations, and being "a long-winded bastard" I am always happy to do so. The hosts of these podcasts need but ask!