Criterion Project #18: NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)

Nightmare Alley

Spine #1078

Year: 1947

Director: Edmund Goulding

As previously alluded to, Noirvember is coming to its conclusion so why not feature one last noir classic that, like the prior three entries in this project (Sweet Smell of Success, Detour, and Kiss Me Deadly), I had not seen before. I also figured closing out the month with Nightmare Alley could serve as a nice table-setter for Guillermo del Toro’s remake coming out next month. I generally prefer to have seen the original before watching a remake, especially such a boisterously heralded one such as this.

I’m not one to fault a remake for not following the original blueprint down to the last detail (I used to be but then I realized how dumb that is), but I will say one thing – no actor on earth is going to top Tyrone Power’s performance as the ambitious carnie, Stan Carlisle. No one.

Bradley Cooper is slated to fill the role in the remake and I will reserve judgment, which isn’t a knock on him as an actor. I think he’s been legitimately good at times, but he’s never been the driving force of a movie like what’s required here. Tyrone Power owns this movie.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a street smart guy who’s been toiling his whole life as a nobody sees an opportunity to go for the big time, but he’ll have to use some people to get there. One thing leads to another and the guy has found stardom – as a professional con man, making few friends and plenty of enemies along the way. It isn’t long before an even larger pot of gold appears on the horizon and that somebody who was once a nobody finds himself willing to risk everything to keep digging out of his misery.

That’s simply a skeletal outline of Nightmare Alley but it seems to apply to so many noirs. Sweet Smell of Success and Kiss Me Deadly certainly line up with much of that synopsis. Watching four of these genre films in a row really highlights some of the common themes that repeat themselves through so many of these films, and I have to say that my fellow males are not often portrayed in the greatest light.

This dagger, thrown at Stan by the shrewd psychologist, Lillith (Helen Walker), is a perfect summation of the male archetype in film noir (though I’d say it equally applies to femme fatales):

I think you’re a perfectly normal human being. Selfish and ruthless when you want something – generous and kindly when you’ve got it.

Stan Carlisle is another man with an unhappy past, a fragile ego, and an impulsive nature. He’s uneducated, but not dumb. Tyrone Power’s performance injects Stan with a dangerous determination – something you can see in his eyes when poor Molly (Colleen Gray) is at his side, swooning at the thought of starting a life with Stan. He’s promised her (but mostly himself) fame and glory, and in turn she’s promised him all the things (she thinks) he wants. But he’s looking right past her pretty face and ignoring every adoring word she can throw at him. For Stan, the room had gone silent the moment she agreed to his plan. Without uttering a word you know that Molly is in emotional, if not physical, danger being with him.

But much of the joy of film noir isn’t finding out whether or not things will work out, it’s about the harshness of the inevitable.

The basic story concerns a small group of carnival performers – Stan, Molly, the clairvoyant Zeena (Joan Blondell), her drunk hubby, Pete (Ian Keith), and strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki). Stan assists while Zeena and Pete do a low-rent rendition of their famous mentalist act that brought them glory years ago.

You can see Stan’s ears stand at attention at the first mention of this lucrative “act”, which involves a complex code between the performer and the assistant in order to manipulate attendees into believing the performer is a clairvoyant. Stan has the silver tongue of a trained serpent, he just needs to learn the code.

The “accidental” death of Zeena’s hubby, Pete, ensures that Zeena will teach Stan the code so they can resurrect the once famous act.

Think about that act and then read this exchange between Stan and Zeena that takes place very early in the film:

Zeena: You like this racket, don’t you?

Stan: Oh, lady, I was made for it. I had all kinds of jobs before this one came along; but, none of ’em were anything but jobs. But this gets me. I like it. All of it. The crowds, the noise, the idea of keeping on the move. You see those yokels out there, it gives you sort of a superior feeling, as if you were in the know and they were on the outside looking in. Kinda hard to explain, but I like it.

Everything you need to know about Stan Carlisle is contained therein. Is there anything more terrifying than an overzealous man with an inferiority complex? One track mind.

I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this film very much of it wasn’t for Tyrone Power. The rise-and-fall narrative is far from my favorite storytelling clichΓ© but this film passes based solely on that performance. He has such power and gravity in his speech, perfect for the role of a manipulator whose machinations dare him to play the role of deity at one point in this film. And you believe he’s willing to go there, even as you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, “Are you NUTS?!”

By the time the pot has boiled over, the only thing left of our poor determined Stan are primal urges. And the way the film comes full circle back to a specific conversation at the very beginning of the film is equal parts brilliant, obvious, and terrifyingly bleak.

So, yes, Noirvember is coming to an end tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed each film and came away with an absolute contender for a spot in my top 10 to 20 films of all time (seriously, Sweet Smell of Success is incredible). That being said, some of the dark elements are anything but uplifting and I’m looking forward to hopping out of the shadows and into something more comfortable.

Watch Nightmare Alley if for no other reason than to admire Tyrone Power’s amazing performance. It’s an all-timer.

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