Carny Stanton Carlisle (Power) is a barker and assistant to Zeena Krumbein (Joan Blondell), a fake medium. Her husband, Pete (Ian Keith), is a pathetic rummy who - barely - helps Zeena pull off her confidence game with the audience. Stanton is fascinated when he learns that Pete and Zeena used to be major headliners in Vaudeville, with a top-drawer mentalist act that involved the use of an elaborate code. Stanton is eager to revive the act with Zeena but "rum-dum" Pete, aware Stanton is already muscling in on his girl, refuses to go along.
When Zeena tries to dry Pete out and he's feeling the DTs, Stanton feels sorry for him, offering him his bottle of moonshine, but inadvertently hands Pete a bottle of wood alcohol instead. Pete dies overnight, and Stanton and Zeena revive the old act and are soon earning "top carny dough." When Stanton falls in with strongman Bruno's (Mike Mazurki) girl, Molly (Coleen Gray, very sexy), and Bruno and Zeena all but force the young lovers to marry (carny tradition?), Stanton eventually leaves the carnival with his new bride and they form a sensational nightclub act with Stanton now a mentalist billed as Stanton the Great.
Despite their success and growing fame, Stanton wants to reach even higher, and becomes involved with a disreputable "consulting psychologist," Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who secretly records all her therapy sessions. With her help he conspires to pull off a grift worth millions.
Nightmare Alley is a stunner, hypnotic with its portrait of carnival life that's both seedy and romanticized all at once. Psychiatry, already looked upon with great skepticism in 1947, is portrayed here with contempt, viewed as much a con game as anything on the midway. Jules Furthman, who penned many of Howard Hawks' best films (including Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, and Rio Bravo), wrote the superb, cyclical screenplay, adapted from the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, whose own life tragically mirrored Pete and Stanton's in some respects. (He was an abusive alcoholic who eventually took his own life, according to the IMDb.)
One of the great things about the film is the delicate handling of the various confidence games. The movie audience is always aware that what we're seeing are cons, and are given enough information that we have a general idea of how they're accomplished, but never completely so. There's always an air of mystery about them, and the marvelous performance of Tyrone Power almost makes them seem real. Late in the film Power fakes a poltergeist staged so convincingly that the effect - even though we know it's not real - is nonetheless mesmerizing, almost scary.
Further, Joan Blondell's character reads Tarot cards (which she rhymes with "carrot"), and the script strongly hints that her readings, significantly never done for profit, do in fact predict the future.
As for Power's Stanton, he's a fascinatingly drawn character, a not-bad sort driven by a need to manipulate and control others (as opposed to monetary greed or lust, the usual motives that drive most noir) while at the same time continually upping the ante. At the carnival he's strongly attracted to the con games because "it gives you a sort of superior felling....It's as if you were in the know, and they were on the outside looking in." Stanton is amoral as opposed to immoral; the former is much harder to play and pull off, and this leads him astray, making his ultimate fate all the more tragic.
To Molly's great discomfort, cocky Stanton eventually adopts a kind of evangelist fervor to the act, and Power, always an underrated actor, is superb in these scenes. Indeed, the performances are terrific all-around, from a perfectly-cast Blondell to Ian Keith's Pete, a man all-too-aware of how far he's fallen.
Cleverly, the carny world is seen only from the vantage of the general vicinity where Stanton, Zeena, Bruno, and Molly work and sleep - their neighborhood, so to speak. Stanton becomes fascinated with a geek act a few tents down (the importance of which becomes clear later on), but the geek himself is never seen clearly, another good idea.
Video & Audio
Nightmare Alley, despite years in legal limbo, hasn't suffered pictorially. The image is in fine shape, with a reasonable amount of age-related wear, and generally impresses. (Curiously, a post-1953 logo appears to have been used, as it appears slightly squeezed. Perhaps was drawn from a television syndication version.) This reviewer skipped the faux English stereo track in favor of the original mono, which played just fine. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.
As with The Street with No Name, the main supplement is a Commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver, who are rightly much more enthused about this title. A trailer for Nightmare Alley is missing both text and narration, making for a frustrating viewing experience; it would have been interesting to see how Fox's marketing department sold this to unsuspecting crowds. Fox Noir offers five trailers, one more than The Street with No Name: The Dark Corner (not yet out on DVD), House of Bamboo (16:9 anamorphic), Laura, and Panic in the Streets, and The Street with No Name. Each of these is complete with narration and text.
Nightmare Alley is endlessly fascinating and original. Though its particular era of carnivals and nightclubs is long extinct, the film has a darkness and sophistication that make it play as if it were brand-new.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.