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Nightmare Alley

With an introduction by Guy Maddin • VAC Basement Auditorium (1B20)

Nightmare Alley
With an introduction by Guy Maddin

There's something strangely endearing and nostalgic about a carnivalsetting. Perhaps it's the innocence of its attractions; games of skill,feats of magic, sideshow freaks. And there is kind of a sleazy family qualityto the carny workers -- like low-rent Italian mobsters. There are few greatmovies about carnivals -- Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) is oneof them -- and Nightmare Alley (1947) is another.

Nightmare Alley has been elevated to cult status mostly out of its unavailability. It has been out of circulation for fifty years due to some argument over rights. Some say it played on television twenty years ago and there may be bootleg tapes circulating. In the fall of 1999, a print resurfaced that played at San Francisco's Roxie theater for one week, and in a theater in Seattle for one week. And that's it. It's gone again. I got to see it, and I'm forever grateful.

Nightmare Alley tells the story of Stan (Tyrone Power), a drifter who has worked many jobs before ending up in a carnival. He works with Zeena (Joan Blondell), a mind-reader, and her drunken husband Pete (Ian Keith). Zeena and her husband had once developed a priceless code that allowed them to do a first-class act in Vaudeville, but now Pete is too drunk to pull it off. Pete dies in an accident one night that is partially Stan's fault, and Stan moves up to the big time, learning the code and working with Zeena. But Stan has fallen in love with Molly (Colleen Gray), the strongman Bruno's (Mike Mazurki) girlfriend. Stan and Molly run away together and get a job working the act in a nightclub. There Stan meets a less-than-scrupulous shrink named Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker). Together they plan even bigger swindles, bilking the town's richest and most powerful out of their cash. But this is film noir, and in the end, everything falls apart in the most vicious and circular way.

The central question of Nightmare Alley is, "how does one get so low?" At first Stan asks that question about the circus geek, who we never see except in shadow. No one really likes to talk about the geek. He's a fact of life that everyone accepts; the black sheep of the family. Crowds like to see him because he holds an odd fascination. Because Stan breaks the rule and asks about the geek, their fates become intertwined. No matter how successful Stan becomes, he is destined to fall down again. During some of his turning points, we hear the geek laughing and screaming in the background.

Nightmare Alley is a terrific movie, pulled off with a tremendous amount of skill. Director Edmund Goulding was a Hollywood director-for-hire who was best known for working with great actresses. Best Picture winner Grand Hotel (1932) with Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo and Dark Victory (1939) with Bette Davis were his. After World War II, his projects got stranger and he ended up directing Tyrone Power in The Razor's Edge (1946). Goulding used Power again in Nightmare Alley, twisting Power's image around into a greedy and unscrupulous user. However, if there is a flaw in Nightmare Alley, it's Power, who was a handsome lug without much electricity.

Goulding had the best crew of his career on Nightmare Alley. The screenplay was by Jules Furthman, based on a novel by William Lindsay. Furthman was one of the best in the business, writing some of the greatest films by Josef von Sternberg (Morocco, Shanghai Express, The Shanghai Gesture) and Howard Hawks (Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, Rio Bravo). His dialogue was crisp and seductive. His best scene is when Stan sweet-talks the small-town sheriff into not shutting down the carnival. The cinematography was by Lee Garmes, also one of the best in the business. Garmes brought some extraordinary expressionist lighting to early Hollywood in films like Morocco, Shanghai Express, Scarface, and None Shall Escape. He also shot Duel in the Sun in lurid color for King Vidor, The Paradine Case for Alfred Hitchcock, Caught for Max Ophuls, The Lusty Men for Nicholas Ray, and Land of the Pharaohs for Hawks. Garmes' work is evidenced in the boxy shadow work in the nighttime scenes at the carnival, and the criss-crossed lines in Dr. Ritter's office.

There's not much point in me recommending Nightmare Alley, unless you're lucky enough to live in San Francisco or Seattle, or know someone who has a bootleg tape. Or perhaps you know the guilty parties who are arguing over some mysterious and long-lost copyright, and you can talk some sense into them so that a new generation may be able to see the film. Until then, I will cherish my memory.

— Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid

Nightmare Alley

Thu March 6, 2014, 7:30 only, VAC Basement Auditorium (1B20)

USA, 1947, English, B/W, 110 min, 35mm, 1.37:1, NR

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