Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 24 May 2006
Source Masters of Cinema / Eureka! DVD
Nightmare Alley is an obscure post-war thriller, a noirish tale of circus fakes and con men every bit as crafty and exploitative as the characters it depicts, and just as much fun. Tyrone Power excels as Stanton Carlisle, ‘Stanton the Great,’ a two-bit carny hand turned psychic whose natural guile and inherent greed sets him on the fast track to a life of luxury, and an equally speedy descent. It’s a bleak, brutal film, leavened by sly humour and a refreshing, hard faced cynicism reminiscent of Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell Of Success over a decade later. And like that film, Nightmare Alley was the brainchild of three fearless, unpredictable men: novelist and Spanish war veteran William Lindsey Gresham, A-list director Edmund Goulding, and restless, ambitious star Tyrone Power.
The film was Power’s project from the beginning. He hired Goulding not only for his solid reputation — the director had been Hollywood elite for three decades, most renowned for the ensemble masterpiece Grand Hotel in 1932 — but also as a statement of intent. Nightmare Alley may be a grubby thriller on the surface, but to Power it was a prestige picture, intended to showcase his acting skills above and beyond the simple heroic leads that made his name. He couldn’t have chosen a more divergent character, not without resorting to out-and-out villainy. Carlisle is the film’s protagonist, but he’s no hero—he’s a self centred charlatan, a swindler and even a murderer, albeit accidentally. Power never shrinks from baring the character’s black heart as he betrays all of those who care for him in the literal pursuit of both fame and fortune. But neither does he disguise Carlisle’s deep rooted fear and bewilderment, his helpless guilt at all the wrong he’s done. A scene early in the picture where Carlisle almost falls for the nostalgic patter of a drunken old-time psychic gives real depth to the character—beneath all the charades and chicanery, Stanton Carlisle genuinely wants to believe.
The film’s first act is the busiest and most entertaining. We meet Zeena the mystic, plying her trade with a combination of misdirection and mirrors; Molly the electric girl and her protector Bruno, the strongman. Then there’s the Geek, little seen but widely discussed, the lowest scum of the earth, paid in whisky to debase himself before a paying audience. Goulding constructs vivid crowd scenes, cramming the screen with all the hustle and din of a working Carnival. The fairground sets are intricate and convincing, a maze of collapsible hardwood façades concealing the real drama. There’s a riveting scene where Stanton hypnotises a local sheriff, exploring the boundaries of his own talent as he plays on his victim’s fears and psychoses. The glint in Power’s eye at the realisation of his own effect on the weak minded is simultaneously inspiring and terrifying; there’s no limit to his potential, or his selfish ambition.
The pace slows in the second half, as Carlisle leaves the carny to ply his trade as a ‘mentalist,’ a nightclub psychic. A more standard noir plot intrudes, as he conspires with local psychiatrist Lilith Ritter to hoodwink Chicago’s vulnerable rich, posing as a medium able to commune with the dead and becoming something of a guru in the process. Here the film’s sociological implications become apparent, drawing direct parallels between psychiatry, organised religion and Carlisle’s special brand of emotional fraud. Each appeals to the lost and the lonely, those yearning for something more beyond this life, and each seems to offer an answer, a sense of meaning. The film’s religious sympathies are never quite spelled out—is God real and vengeful, responding angrily to Carlisle’s blasphemy? Or is it all just coincidence, just another trick to hoodwink the paying public?
This 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. Madame Zeena’s tarot cards, scorned by Carlisle as a gypsy’s trick, are nonetheless proved unerringly correct in their predictions. And at the film’s climax, when Lilith reveals the switch that leads to Carlisle’s downfall, her accusation that their collusion and her betrayal exist only in his mind, that everything that has happened is just a symptom of his own hallucinatory paranoia, the film gives us no reason to disbelieve her. 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.
Although classified as noir (a selling point the excellent new Eureka DVD release reiterates ceaselessly) 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.
The film is let down by a rather underwhelming final scene, reuniting Stanton with his estranged wife and setting the stage for a potential recovery. Originally, Nightmare Alley closed with Carlisle in the Carny boss’s office, accepting the job of Geek with the film’s killer line ‘I was born to it…’, a savage ending perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film. A few years later, or on a smaller, less prestigious picture, such an ending might have been acceptable, but Fox understandably chose to protect their interests, insisting on at least the possibility of redemption. They needn’t have bothered—the film was a box office failure, and has languished in legal disputes ever since. 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.