Nightmare Alley July 19, 2021
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
tan Carlisle (a never-better Tyrone Power) works as a carnival barker. This lean and hood-eyed opportunist, who is the center of Edmund Goulding’s bracingly bleak Nightmare Alley (1947), professes to love this milieu and this job. “I like all of it — the crowds, the noise, the idea of keeping on the move,” he says to one of his co-workers. What he likes most of all, though, is the implicit power certain carnival performers —
the ones who imbue their acts with “magic” and visual tricks — hold over their audience, who loves eating the proverbial sausage offered without an awareness of, or much vested interest in, how it’s made. There’s an oddity in Stan’s vaudeville family: a “geek” whose specialty involves biting the heads off of chickens for payments of alcohol rather than money. Stan is baffled by him. “How could anyone get so low?” Stan wonders. “It can happen,” his colleague, Zeena (Joan Blondell), replies coolly.
Much of the suspense of Nightmare Alley derives from the tacit confirmation that it won’t be long before Stan, soon defined to us as a lifelong con artist we're just now meeting, will embody the lowliness of that geek who so perplexes him. The movie is based on a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham; it assumes a rise-and-fall arc for Stan. He’s a man so good at feigning candor and vulnerability that it can be difficult to discern, at least during the rise period, sincerity versus manipulation. It’s also possible that Stan, forever honing his griftsmanship, sometimes conflates the two in his head without realizing it. It could even be as simple as one character’s observation — that he’s, to paraphrase, selfish and ruthless when he wants something and generous and kind when he’s got it. But Stan is not so myopic and near-sociopathic that he doesn’t seem human to us. He’s later palpably haunted by his inadvertent role in someone’s death by drink mid-movie (and in general by the image of the down-on-his-luck geek). And the film suggests he’s not necessarily enjoying his conning — more like performing it almost compulsively. His rottenness feels plausible.
Stan eventually becomes a “miracle worker” in Chicago. There, he starts a quickly successful quasi-magic act in a cushy nightclub. With assistance from his selectively moral wife, Molly (Coleen Gray), whom he first met at the circus, he blindfolds himself and “guesses” correctly information about certain guests thanks to a tricky verbal code. (The way Molly accents certain letters, apparently, is enough; I couldn’t crack it if I tried, though.) Stan’s ambitiousness becomes a sort of curse in Nightmare Alley. He’s never content with what he has — unceasingly eager to uncover a new way to dupe — and so we get anxious speculating how much that ambition can keep climbing before the stairs decay and send him plummeting. In Nightmare Alley, that decay is sped up by two forces: a like-minded Machiavellian type working as a psychologist (Helen Walker) in Chicago who turns out to be even more ruthless than Stan; a late-movie grift that leans into such inordinate cruelty that it feels doomed before the first attempt can be tried.
As Stan, Power gives what many agree is his best performance; Nightmare Alley might also be his best-known movie to modern audiences. But the role, and the film, are otherwise outliers in his filmography. At the time the movie was released, audiences weren’t receptive to the actor moving beyond the bounds of his established type and the kinds of films in which he usually starred. Beginning in the mid-1930s, when his career began in earnest, Power was almost always typecast as romantic dreamboats or dashing adventurers. His dark good looks, which found their nuclei in his intense eyes and thick eyebrows, worked wonderfully in the context of romantic fantasy. There, his stormy prettiness seemed to indicate an inner passion only a paramour worthy of him could fully unlock. Tired of the limitations imposed on him by the 1940s — a fatigue exacerbated by a years-long hiatus from acting to assist with the war effort — Power lobbied hard to get the part in this movie. (It had been reluctantly optioned by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck.) Power got what he wanted. But the daring move didn’t pan out materially — box-office returns weren’t good despite heavy promotion — and so he was soon again relegated to parts with which he wasn’t very satisfied until he died an early death in 1958.
Now it’s easier to appreciate what Power did, unworried about career-jeopardizing, in 1947. (A remove from the context and expectations of the period is certainly helpful.) Power’s work is unequivocally strong — not merely a case of a boxed-in actor showing he could hold his own outside of the boundaries foisted on him but, more bittersweetly, a case of a performer who might have had more of an enduring legacy if he had had the freedom to more frequently venture beyond typecasting. Power has a wolfish quality that gets under your skin — a believable slipperiness that makes you uneasy around him. It’s the kind of performance that has the sort of lived-in quality that only pokes holes in the screenplay’s shortcomings — namely its vagueness around Stan’s pre-circus life and what about it inflamed a need to achieve American dream-making trickily. (Power does the type of work that only makes you want to know more; you can’t help but think about what the movie’s screenwriter, Jules Furthman, isn’t giving you.)
Power has solid support in a cast that makes Stan’s tendency to discard particularly painful. These characters are too well-realized to feel like mere playthings. Gray is convincing as a young woman so caught up in the thrill of her husband’s confident duplicity that we can empathize with her late-in-the-movie change of heart. Walker, whose character proves herself a better con than the man who attempts to undermine her, toes the line between pragmatic and cinematic evil without ever leaning too heavily on one side. Nightmare Alley finds its heart most of all through Blondell. Her Zeena — who made a lot of money doing the act Power eventually steals with her husband until the latter was impaired by debilitating alcoholism — is fiercely likable. Practical and worn, but with her essential goodness still intact, Zeena stays with you. She’s a woman expected to weather the reverberative faults and advantage-taking of the men in her life and remain a dependable force of support. When Stan hits rock bottom, it’s affecting. But in Nightmare Alley, it’s the people hurt by his power-hungriness we think about most. “You’re going against God,” Molly warns Stan toward the end of the film, finally too bothered by his greed to not speak up. “Do you want him to strike you dead?” The movie is so rousingly cynical, the possibility of instantaneous death comes off as sort of merciful. A