Film noir and the horror movie are kissing cousins. Both derive from the Gothic novel. Both derive their visual sensibilities from German expressionism. Neither sets out to reassure the audience or stroke their convictions that all is right with the world. Sometimes, as in The Leopard Man or Alias Nick Beal, the line between them is completely blurred. One of the movies from this twilight area between horror and film noir is Nightmare Alley (1947, directed by Edmund Goulding), one of the cinema’s blackest beasts. It's a film that plays like a lost Tod Browning film, with Tyrone Power in the Lon Chaney role. The film’s dramatic arc follows an irredeemable carny as he rises from the sideshow into high society, then back down as far as possible. Along the way, there are hints that there are sinister powers at work. Joan Blondell’s sideshow mentalist seems to have a real gift when she reads Tarot cards in private and Power’s Stanton Carlisle, a con-man in most respects, occasionally sees beyond what he can legitimately guess from cold reading of his marks. The film stages striking scenes that would work as horror set pieces were we not privy to the con behind them.
The film is in three acts, each corresponding to a different woman. The first act finds Stanton learning the con and accidentally killing the husband of his teacher (Blondell). There’s a certain cold-heartedness in the way Stanton moves into the partnership, but Stanton is nothing if not a cold-hearted grifter. The second act finds Stanton married to the Strongman’s ex-girlfriend (Coleen Gray)--and taking his mentalist act into nightclubs and high society. Neither Blondell nor Gray are traditional femmes fatale, though both assume the role at points, but the third woman in Stanton’s life, the psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), is fatale to the core. She’s as cold and calculating as Stanton himself and the movie hints that her own profession is as much a con as Stanton’s. This progression charts an interesting evolution from superstition to “science,” and the film is skeptical of both. The downward spiral is steep for Stanton after Lilith gives him a shove off his peak. The central question asked by the film--early on and then at the end--is how does one become a geek? How deep is the bottom of the well? What circumstances will compel a man to debase himself in a cheap sideshow, biting the heads off of animals? At the end of the line, when Stanton is asked if he’s the man for the job, he says, “Mister, I was made for it...”
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Nightmare Alley is the casting of Tyrone Power in the lead. This was one of Power’s personal projects, and like Dick Powell before him, he used the conventions of film noir to re-invent himself. Unlike Powell, who made the jump from matinee crooner to hard-boiled tough-guy as Raymond Chandler's knight-errant-in-a-fedora, Philip Marlowe, Power seems hell-bent for leather on utterly destroying his image as a matinee idol. Rarely has such a pretty leading man showed such coiling nastiness behind his eyes. Rarely has such a pretty leading man charted such depths of degradation, but that’s what gives the film its kick.
Of course, Daryl F. Zanuck would have none of this. He certainly wasn’t going to sit idly by as Power mutated into something other than a bankable leading man. He insisted on inserting a note of grace at the end of the film, a note completely at odds with everything that comes before it. It’s the same kind of cinematic mutilation we see in The Magnificent Ambersons and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Hollywood has never really learned that audiences don’t necessarily want “happy” endings. They want satisfying endings. Alas. As for Tyrone Power, the failure of the film--in part due to the studio’s lack of faith--sent him back to the swashbucklers and romances, though undercurrents of Stanton Carlisle occasionally resurface in his roles in The Prince of Foxes and Witness for the Prosecution. All of which leaves an audience to speculate about what might have been.
A slightly different version of this review appeared on my old web site. After watching the movie again last night, I don't have much to add, except for two things: this is an early version meta-cinema. It dives deep into manipulation, and suggests that not only is the audience composed of marks, but that the movie is running a con on them. The boy and his dog bit is the most prominent example of this, but there are others. Also, this is an absolutely gorgeous movie, something that hasn't always been apparent. The first time I saw Nightmare Alley was on late night television way back when. That old TV print was beat all to hell and for a long time, I thought the roughness of the prints I had seen added to the movie's cache of seediness. This is something I've thought about a lot of film noir, particularly from Poverty Row. Boy, was I wrong. The Fox DVD puts paid to that notion. This was an "A" picture and looks it. One day, I'd love to see Nightmare Alley on a big screen. I might have to make a pilgrimage to the Noir City festival to make that happen, but everyone should have something in their life to look forward to, eh? Otherwise, the downward spiral is steep.