A traveling carnival employee, Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power, The Mark of Zorro), schemes his way into a mind-reading act created by the carnival’s mentalist, Zeena (Joan Blondell, Three on a Match). Stanton becomes so popular with audiences that he decides to leave Zeena to pursue a career outside the carnival. But Stanton pays a huge price for his overly-ambitious attitude.
Reaction & Thoughts:
Though Nightmare Alley wasn’t initially well received, this downbeat thriller reflects postwar malaise better than any other film from the era. Director Edmund Goulding (Dark Victory and The Old Maid) took the film so deep inside the darkest of alleys that the noir genre has tried to look for a safe exit ever since.
Nightmare Alley has a pretty straightforward narrative. It’s a typical Hollywood linear storyline. Surprisingly, however, the film is anything but ordinary. If “life is a carnival,” then get ready for one horrifying masquerade. This is one wicked movie. Jules Furthman’s script, based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, takes the viewer on a merry-go-round ride from hell. You almost hear Rod Serling’s words, “You are about to enter another dimension …”
One of the most important components of the film is its kooky atmosphere. Nightmare Alley has a unique look. There is something off-putting about how the film was shot — Lee Garmes’s (Shanghai Express and Duel in the Sun) superb b/w cinematography makes everything look strange, forbidden. The incessant use of dark shadows makes the simplest scenes look like something out of a German Expressionist film. The sets are equally bizarre. You can tell that a lot of thought went into the overall sinister tone of film.
Tyrone Power is simply sensational. He never gave a more impressive performance than here. Being impossibly handsome became a distinct disadvantage as he tried to challenge himself. Power was eager to play something different and he got his wish with the role of the unscrupulous carny. Staton is not only a heel, but he’s also a ruthless sociopath; a man incapable of empathy. Power’s natural charm and good looks add another layer to his odious character.
The supporting characters are well-developed. Most curious is the role of the psychoanalyst, played exceedingly well by Helen Walker (Call Northside 777). This lady is scary — the femme fatale to end all femme fatales. She’s unscrupulous to the ninth degree, but you can’t tell by just looking at her — her refined exterior hides the fact that she’s an ugly monster. The character successfully pushes the idea that there’s not much difference between carnival attractions and the real world — both places are filled with “oddities.”
Blondell is excellent as Zeena. She holds her own against both Power’s and Walker’s no-holds-barred performances. The fine supporting cast also includes Ian Keith (The Sign of the Cross) as Blondell’s alcoholic husband, Coleen Gray (Kiss of Death) as Power’s love interest, and the inimitable tough guy Mike Mazurki (Murder, My Sweet and Some Like It Hot) as Bruno The Strong Man.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Nightmare Alley is relentlessly grim and nasty. It seems that this meticulously put together thriller had one aim: make viewers feel uncomfortable. But behind the tone of misanthropic sourness, the film shows some truths about human nature. Above all, Nightmare Alley displays postwar discontent in its rawest, purest form. It’s a representation of a particular mood and as such it is an utterly fascinating and really scary movie. B&W, 110 minutes, Not Rated.