Nightmare Alley (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Edmund Goulding|
|Produced by||George Jessel|
|Screenplay by||Jules Furthman|
|Based on||the novel Nightmare Alley
by William Lindsay Gresham
|Music by||Cyril J. Mockridge|
|Edited by||Barbara McLean|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
Power, wishing to expand beyond the romantic and swashbuckler roles that brought him to fame, bought the rights to the novel so he could star as the unsavory lead, "The Great Stanton", a scheming carnival barker. The film premiered in the United States on October 9, 1947, then met with wide release on October 28, 1947, later having six more European releases between November 1947 to May 1954.
To make the film more believable, the producers built a full working carnival on ten acres (40,000 m²) of the 20th Century Fox back lot. They also hired over 100 sideshow attractions and carnival people to add further authenticity.
As noted on the DVD commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Nightmare Alley was somewhat unusual among film noir in having top stars, production staff and a relatively large budget. Despite a strong promotion campaign, the film was not a financial success upon its original release, due in part to protests against some of the scandalous content. The film has found acclaim and is regarded as a classic.
The movie follows the rise and fall of a con man—a story that begins and ends at a seedy traveling carnival. Fascinated by everything there, including a grotesque geek, Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power) works with "Mademoiselle Zeena" (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith). Once a top-billed act, Zeena and Pete used an ingenious code to make it appear that she had extraordinary mental powers, until her (unspecified) misdeeds drove Pete to drink and reduced them to working in a third-rate outfit. Stanton learns that many people want to buy the code from Zeena for a lot of money but she won't sell; she is saving it as a nest egg. He tries to romance Zeena into teaching it to him but she remains faithful to her husband and even hopes to send him to a detox clinic for alcoholics.
One night in Texas, Stanton accidentally gives Pete the wrong bottle: the old man dies from drinking wood alcohol instead of moonshine. To keep her act going, Zeena is forced to teach Stanton the mind-reading code so that he can serve as her assistant.
Stanton prefers the company of the younger Molly (Coleen Gray). When their romance is found out, the remainder of the carnies including strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki) force the pair into a shotgun marriage. No longer welcome in the carnival, Stanton realizes this is actually a golden opportunity for him. He and his wife leave the carnival. He becomes "The Great Stanton," performing to enraptured audiences in expensive nightclubs.
With scheming Chicago psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) providing him with information about her patients, Stan passes himself off as someone who can communicate with the dead. The plan almost works, until Stanton tries to swindle skeptical Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes) by having Molly pose as the ghost of Grindle's long-lost love. When the heartbroken Grindle breaks down, Molly refuses to play the charade and reveals herself to Grindle, thereby exposing Stanton as a fake. As he prepares to flee, Stanton discovers he's been scammed by Ritter, who gives him only $150 of Grindle's money rather than the promised $150,000 and threatens to testify that he is mentally disturbed, should he accuse her of complicity. Stanton gives the $150 to Molly and urges her return to the carnival world where people care for her. Meanwhile, he gradually sinks into alcoholism.
With nowhere else to go, the fallen Stanton tries to get a job at another carnival, only to suffer the ultimate degradation: the only job he can get is playing the geek, eating live chickens in a sideshow and replying to the offer with his recurring catchphrase, "Mister, I was made for it." Unable to stand his life any further, he goes berserk. Fortunately, Molly happens to work in the same carnival. Stan regains hope when he sees her again and Molly vows to nurse him back to health, but their reunion is bittersweet, being reminiscent of Zeena nursing the ever-drunk Pete. This conclusion, while somewhat dark and ambiguous, differs from the novel, which implies that Stanton is doomed to work as a geek until he drinks himself to death.
Upon the film's original release, reviews were mixed.
The New York Times review commented,
- 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.
The Variety magazine review complimented the film's acting, noting that:
- Nightmare Alley is a harsh, brutal story [based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham] told with the sharp clarity of an etching ... Most vivid of these is Joan Blondell as the girl he works for the secrets of the mind-reading act. Coleen Gray is sympathetic and convincing as his steadfast wife and partner in his act and Helen Walker comes through successfully as the calculating femme who topples Power from the heights of fortune back to degradation as the geek in the carney. Ian Keith is outstanding as Blondell's drunken husband.
In a 2000 review of the film in The Village Voice, writer J. Hoberman commented, "This 1947 account of an archetypal American's rise and fall is neither a great movie nor even a classic noir but it has a great ambition to be daring and, once seen, is not easily forgotten. The movie suggested far more than it showed but what it showed, including the climactic degradation of 20th Century Fox's then-major star Tyrone Power, was remarkably sordid for so high-profile a release."
- Nightmare Alley at the Internet Movie Database
- Nightmare Alley at AllMovie
- Nightmare Alley at the TCM Movie Database
- Nightmare Alley film trailer on YouTube