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Noir, by its nature, is defined by despair and disillusionment. Yet few Hollywood noirs are as despairing, or as darkly glittering, as Nightmare Alley, the 1947 film adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's novel of the same name, which had been published just a year earlier. Reviewing the novel in The Washington Post upon its republication in 2010, critic Michael Dirda wrote, "'Nightmare Alley' portrays 1930s America as a sleazy, run-down carnival, where everyone is either on the make, a born sucker or trapped in a real or psychological cage. Nearly all its major characters are emotionally damaged or physically deformed. Except for one, each is also pitiable -- there, but for the grace of God, go you or I."
The same could be said of the movie, in which Tyrone Power plays Stanton Carlisle, a small-time carnie who charms fake mind reader Zeena (Joan Blondell) into sharing the secret of one of her hugely successful acts-and that's after he commits a mistake that causes the death of her husband, the drunkard Pete (Ian Keith). After he's learned Zeena's secret formula, Stanton ditches her for the younger and more nubile Molly (Colleen Gray); the two polish up the mind-reading act and take it on the road, bringing it to a posh night spot in Chicago. But Stanton isn't content with the act's success. He teams with a scheming psychoanalyst, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), to figure out a way to bilk the city's richest society figures, launching a spiral of corrosive evil that can only double back on him.
Nightmare Alley wasn't a hit upon its release. Audiences may have blanched, given the rather sordid subject matter, and if the stuffy review that ran in the New York Times is any indication, critics may not have fully understood the film, either. The paper's anonymous reviewer dismissed the picture, writing, "If one can take any moral value out of 'Nightmare Alley' it would seem to be that a terrible retribution is the inevitable consequence for he who would mockingly attempt to play God. Otherwise, the experience would not be very rewarding for, despite some fine and intense acting by Mr. Power and others, this film traverses distasteful dramatic ground and only rarely does it achieve any substance as entertainment."
But in the years since, Nightmare Alley has come to be considered one of the gems of film noir, and for good reason. The picture was directed by Edmund Goulding, a Hollywood veteran whose talents seemed to lean more toward melodrama (Of Human Bondage, Dark Victory). But he keeps Nightmare Alley taut and tensile-the picture never flags or droops; its foreboding undercurrent is beautifully sustained, from the moment very early in the story when Power's Stanton expresses his curiosity about a sideshow geek, a man who tears the heads off chickens with his teeth in exchange for a daily ration of booze. It's a horrific job, and Goulding never shows us the man directly, though we hear him screaming, unhinged and undone. "How does a guy become a geek?" Stanton asks one of his carny pals, but it's as if he already knows the answer in his heart. He can't afford to look too deep, lest he get a shuddering glimpse of his own future.
Power is superb and unsettling here-his manicured, elegant, leading-man good looks counterbalance his character's ruthlessness and, later, his hollow-eyed despair. The movie was deeply important to him. He had bought the rights to Gresham's novel, and then had to persuade a reluctant Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox to go ahead with the film. The picture wasn't made on the cheap, as so many noirs were: Shot by the great and extraordinarily versatile cinematographer Lee Garmes - the man responsible for the lurid Technicolor majesty of Duel in the Sun, the soft fairytale hues of Zoo in Budapest, and the lush exoticism of Morocco -- Nightmare Alley has a suitably sinister, gritty shimmer. It conjures elements of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and points toward the work Diane Arbus would do some 10 years later.
Although Power fought to preserve the integrity of the novel, Zanuck fought him on the movie's ending, believing Greshem's original vision would be too cynical for audiences to take. But even the movie's happy - or at least just reasonably hopeful - ending isn't enough to reverse all the creeping dread that comes before. Gresham, by all accounts, knew that dread firsthand. He struggled with alcoholism himself, turning to Freudian psychoanalysis for help but finding no relief. For a time, he sought solace in Christianity, studying the work of C.S. Lewis. (His wife, the poet Joy Davidman, ultimately left him for Lewis.) He dabbled in Zen Buddhism, Alcoholics Anonymous and Scientology. But his personal problems, coupled with the fact that he never wrote another book as successful as Nightmare Alley, clearly became too much to bear. He committed suicide in 1962.
Almost miraculously, especially considering Zanuck's skittishness, the screenplay for Nightmare Alley--by veteran writer Jules Furthman (The Big Sleep, To Have and To Have Not, Mutiny on the Bounty)--doesn't make the story's foreboding twists and turns easy for the audience. The movie is resolute in the bleakness of its vision. And for that reason, it stands as a bold example of a mainstream work that doesn't talk down to its audience, that trusts viewers to follow it down some very dark pathways. Despite that faux-cheerful ending. Nightmare Alley is a work of desolate beauty, a vision conjured from the troubled side of sleep.— Stephanie Zacharek, TCM.com
Mon February 24, 2020, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
USA, 1947, English, B/W, 110 min, 35mm, 1.37:1, NR