Nightmare Alley

Zeena and Stanton in a carnival truck

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 psychoanalyis.

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.

Nightmare Alley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Zorro: Who Is That Masked Man?

Tyrone Power as Zorro

The Mexicans like their heroes the way they like their tacos – with cheese.
Enter Zorro. Cue mask, cape and ludicrous pencil moustache

Next time you’re in London, try the Robin Hood Zorro restaurant in Hammersmith. This oddly conceived English/Mexican hybrid serves an equally odd drink called the Robin Hood Meets Zorro cocktail. A mouthful to order and a hell of a thing to drink, it contains tequila, gin and beer. The menu doesn’t say it’s served with a bucket, but it probably should be.

What is it about Zorro that seems to bring out the naffness in … well, everything?

It was not always thus. Dial back to the mists of the silent movie era and there’s Douglas Fairbanks Sr, the original screen Zorro, dressed like some gangsta off the streets of South Central LA, doing all his own stunts. If you don’t believe me, watch the Youtube video here and be amazed.

Made in 1920 only a year after Zorro was created in the book The Curse of Capistrano, this is Zorro fresh and vibrant, a Spanish nobleman championing the rights of the little man in the pueblos of Los Angeles in a California that was still a wild dry desert under the Mexican flag.

Dial forward to 1981 and there’s George Hamilton, in Zorro, The Gay Blade, all porcelain veneers and Ronseal tan. A more unlikely example of courageous masculinity it would be had to imagine.

Zorro is America’s first superhero. A re-imagining of the Scarlet Pimpernel – foppish noble by day, man of action by night – he’s the prototype of Batman and every superhero with a cape, a mask and a secret identity. And like Batman, he’s a very easy figure to turn into a camp figure of fun.

Zorro – the thin pencil moustache, the trousers tucked into leather boots, the gaucho hat, the cape, the bandana. You can’t imagine Jason Statham growling his way through a film dressed like that.

Which takes us to Tyrone Power, a famous Zorro of the 1940s, an actor who actually did look good in hat, cape and etc. So good in fact that the rumour factory had soon decided Power was gay. And Zorro the gay blade he remained till his death and beyond.

And from Power, on past George Hamilton (enough said already) to Antonio Banderas. Now no one is going to suggest that Banderas is anything but 100 per cent man’s man – certainly not while there’s a lawyer still breathing on the planet – but his two outings as Zorro are undoubtedly the campest of the lot. “Nobody leaves my tequila worm dangling in the wind”– he says in The Legend of Zorro, legs athwart, arms akimbo, tongue rammed hard into cheek.

And in Shrek 2 and Puss in Boots Banderas turns up again as a cartoon Zorro who’s even more of a joke than his live-action version.

Is it because he’s Hispanic that gringo American productions turn this iconic mother lode of 20th century superhero culture into something of a mother’s boy? Or is it the mask? Let’s face it, it’s not much of a disguise. Who is that masked man? Er, it’s Antonio Banderas, obviously.

Whatever it is the Zorros keep coming – Disney are hatching an animated version, while the Gypsy Kings are planning on opening their musical Zorro in multiple worldwide locations after a box-office bonanza in London.

Whoever that masked man is, he’s making a lot of people a lot of money.

Ten Great Mexican Films

Amores Perros (2000, dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)

Three stories collide in the key work of the New Mexican cinema, a gorgeous looking, superheated drama full of macho men, fiery women and fighting dogs.

Amores Perros – at Amazon

Y Tu Mamá También (2001, dir: Alfonso Cuarón)

The drama that made Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal internationally famous is a coming-of-age road movie with a philosophical flavour. Maribel Verdu ensures it’s pretty sexy too.

Y Tu Mamá También – at Amazon

El Topo (1970, dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky)

One of the maddest films ever made, a freakish spaghetti western populated with cruel, cackling banditos, pinheads, armless and legless freaks, bare-breasted women and spontaneously combusting rabbits.

El Topo – at Amazon

Midaq Alley (1995, dir: Jorge Fons)

The film that helped Salma Hayek bust – in every sense of the word –out of Mexico into Hollywood is a full-to-the-brim soap given extra wallop by Hayek’s sex-and-drugs storylines.

Midaq Alley – at Amazon

Cronos (1993, dir: Guillermo Del Toro)

The breakthrough of director Guillermo Del Toro is a classic horror film about a medieval device that makes the wearer immortal. An offbeat vampire story that’s full of magic realism, humour and horror.

Cronos – at Amazon

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir: Guillermo Del Toro)

Del Toro’s best to date, a fierce fantasy set in Franco’s Spain about a girl who escapes the world of her brutish stepfather by entering the realm of a horned and threatening mythical beast. Magical.

Pan’s Labyrinth – at Amazon

El Mariachi (1992, dir: Robert Rodriguez)

Shot in Ciudad Acuñaby by second-generation Mexican Robert Rodriguez on a budget of $7,000, the story of a wandering modern minstrel looking for work. What’s in his guitar case? And why is everyone out to kill him?

El Mariachi – at Amazon

Like Water for Chocolate (1992, dir: Alfonso Arau)

In Mexico a person in a state of sexual arousal is said to be “like water for chocolate”– this beautiful intense love story, in which everyone seems ready to boil over, makes it clear why.

Like Water for Chocolate – at Amazon

Sex, Shame and Tears (1999, dir: Antonio Serrano)

A lively film that will remind some of Doris Day and Rock Hudson sex comedies. That’s if you ignore the fact one of the main characters is a rapist! Weird, disjointed and beautifully acted.

Sex, Shame and Tears – at Amazon

Rudo Y Cursi (2008, dir: Carlos Cuarón)

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna star in about the best film made to date about what happens to a poor boy from nowhere when he becomes a superstar footballer. Funny, believable, tragic.

Rudo Y Cursi – at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2011