Nightmare Alley

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1947’s Nightmare Alley is lavish, melodramatic, contains a hint of the supernatural and is a touch too long – you can see why Guillermo Del Toro wanted to remake it. It’s also a great role for a matinee idol trying to shrug off a pretty-boy tag (Tyrone Power even more so than Bradley Cooper in the remake).

In a tale about a carnival worker tasting the heights and then plunging into the depths, Jules Furthman’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s best-seller plays the hubris card early on, in a little speech in which carnie Stanton Carlisle (Power) explains himself. “You see those yokels out there,” he says to mindreader Zeena (Joan Blondell), laying out what it means to him to be a carnie. “It gives you sort of a superior feeling… as if you were in the know and they were on the outside looking in.”

By the end, Stanton has ridden to the top, also as a mentalist, having stolen big-hearted Zeena’s act, then married naive bimbo Molly (Coleen Gray) and finally met his match in tough-as-nails femme fatale Dr Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker). And he’s touched bottom, in outro scenes where he’s now back in the carnival “starring” as The Geek, a half-man, half-beast who’s kept alive on hooch and biscuits. How the mighty have fallen. “How can a guy get so low?” one carnie asks the carnival owner. “He reached too high,” is the answer.

Furthman clearly wants us to see Stanton as an Icarus “reaching too high” and being scorched by success. But in fact Stanton’s trajectory is much more obviously exactly what you’d expect from a Hollywood story of the era about a heel straightforwardly getting his just deserts. “The sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime,” as the studio code (the Hays Code) put it.

Dr Ritter and Stanton
The doctor and the huckster

You can see why Power wanted to do Nightmare Alley. As a character, Power’s fine matinee looks to one side, Stanton is a man with few positives, a schemer and charmer ascending the slippery pole mainly by deceiving women. This was his favourite film and he puts on a fine, intense performance that’s a world away from the swashbuckling roles that made his name. It allowed him to act rather than just stand about in postures vaguely reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks.

Having Power in the role is probably why the film is longer than your average noir – this film has a budget, too, and is beautifully shot by DP Lee Garmes, whose bizarre focusing decisions early on (the back of Molly’s head rather than Stanton’s face – that’s just wrong) cannot detract from the fact that this is a gorgeous looking film. The cast is good too – Blondell, Gray and Walker standouts as the three very different women in Stanton’s life might fit neatly into the Freudian id/ego/superego paradigm, and the fact that Walker is playing a shrink (a carnival huckster in finer threads, the film suggests) lends the idea some weight. Hollywood screenwriters at the time were obsessed with psychoanalysis.

Edmund Goulding directs with invisible pazzazz, upping the rhythm of the actors’ line delivery and the movements of his camera as the drama wends towards its pitiless climax. Music is notably absent up front and Cyril Mockridge only starts to add punctuating melodramatic stabs as matters come to a head, particularly as Stanton over-reaches himself and unwittingly engineers his own downfall.

By the end, there is an echo of the finale of Tod Browning’s Freaks as Stanton gets his comeuppance at the hands of the carnival crowd, having taken a swig of gin ten minutes before the end and then – in fine melodramatic style – become almost instantly an alcoholic who can’t find the bottom of a bottle fast enough.

The original ending was bleak as hell, and so studio boss Darryl F Zanuck tacked on that happyish end, which is easily ignored. It didn’t fool the public, which wasn’t ready to see the swaggering star of many an adventure on the high seas dressed in a T shirt (an early sighting) and behaving like an utter bastard. Nightmare Alley bombed. Not so Del Toro’s remake.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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