Nightmare Alley (1947)
Nightmare Alley (1947)

Genre: Drama and Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.

Release Date: October 28th, 1947 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Edmund Goulding Actors: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Mike Mazurki, Taylor Holmes, Ian Keith

 


 

“T

he show is about to begin!” A carnival barker goads crowds into gathering around an attraction for the “Geek,” a horrifyingly inhuman creature. But it’s a decided racket – the Geek is one of the group’s most popular attractions, but he’s a fraud, a mere actor (of sorts, since he’s boozed up to the point of insanity to attack chickens in front of a flinching throng), just like Madamoiselle Zeena Krumbein (Joan Blondell), the seeress, who is introduced by straw-hatted, striped-suited cohort Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power, cast against type). Alongside Zeena’s drunkard husband Pete (Ian Keith), who aids in the ruse of guessing questions asked by the audience, the Hoatley-Kenny Carnival is essentially a diverse collection of practiced tricksters. Stan is right at home with this motley crew (a “mouse menagerie”), convinced that light scamming is his natural place in the world.

When Stan learns about a secret code that Zeena and Pete used to use, which could be worth a fortune if sold, or even more valuable if put to use in a new seeress act, he pushes Zeena to share the details with him. But when she deals out a deck of tarot cards with ominous signs about Pete’s future, she quickly abandons the thought of starting anew with sights set on the big times once again. That doesn’t stop Stan from fueling Pete’s alcohol addiction, leading to a tragedy that frees up Zeena for that long-awaited opportunity at a fresh mentalist act. Even a pesky marshal poking around the carnival with intentions of making arrests and closing down cruel or shady performances isn’t enough to slow down Stan and his ambitions about the next big swindle.

The story moves somewhat slowly, building characters and schemes (crimes during the era but far from prosecutable shams now) and relationships before addressing typical film noir avenues of suspense and doomed antiheroes. Nevertheless, themes of damning morbidity, love triangles (with femme fatales), and morally questionable personas abound, while the locales are shrouded in shadows and inauspiciousness. There are no heroes here, merely those who play mind games or manipulate one another, and those who are immediate victims – or eventual ones. Even the central romance is one of dishonesty and unwelcome pressures, as strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki) and electric chair girl Molly (Coleen Gray) end up entwined in Carlisle’s life – against his longterm plans. Halfway through, when a third woman, consulting psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), enters the picture, her involvement is likewise surrounded by fraudulence and duplicity. “It takes one to catch one.”

Curiously, the code employed between Zeena and Stan isn’t detailed to the point that it makes much sense; it’s simply described as if it’s extremely intricate but precisely decipherable (even in scenes where the characters explanatorily decode vague enunciations). Yet when the hoax grows, with the monetary takings escalating to dangerous degrees, that initial gimmick becomes far less important. The premise shifts to one of malleable souls desperately wanting to believe in comforting lies (film noir “Fallen Angel” from a couple years prior contains similar concepts) – perhaps untruths too wild for anyone to authentically fall for – as faith and skepticism collide, with Stan beginning to buy into his own boasts of omnipotence, merging cheap hustling with the speech of ministers. “It’s just another angle of show business.”

Based on the depressing novel by William Lindsay Gresham, the primary irony is that the plot follows people who pretend to wrangle supernatural, spiritual phenomena, all while succumbing to the superstitions of crystal gazing themselves. Even as Carlisle knowingly preys upon the weaknesses of gullible targets, wrapping himself up in biblical teachings contrasted against spook-work, it’s his own mind that is on the verge of snapping. Like an inescapable, nightmarish hallucination, the shaky reality of continual deception weighs heavily on his psyche – to the point that liquor might be the only remedy. Sadly, although this story is unexpectedly macabre and sinister (with a decent full-circle vibe), the finale is easily guessable and better fit for a “Twilight Zone” episode than a feature-length production, marking this effort as a moderately memorable curio – but far from an indelible film noir classic.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10