Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley (1947) movie poster

(1947) director Edmound Goulding
viewed: 09/10/2011

Nightmare Alley is a film noir set in the milieu of the sideshow, phony mentalists, and other grifters.  Based upon the excellent 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, it’s unique in its setting and characters in the noir realm.  But unlike Tod Browning’s classic pre-code film, Freaks (1932), Nightmare Alley, the film, though edgy for its time in many ways, goes nowhere near the outre weirdness of the sideshow depicted in that film, nor the more perverse, Freudian depths of the novel.  Not only does it have the “Hollywood ending” tacked lamely on, but it softens many of the edgier elements of the story, as one would typically expect.

It’s one of the anticipated short-comings of reading a good book first and then seeing the film.  But taking that into account, it’s still a pretty good movie.

Tyrone Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, the young man in the sideshow who yearns to become a mentalist (mind-reader), especially after learning the tricks of the trade from the expert Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic wreck of a husband.   They had once been big time, and Carlisle likes the looks of that, as well of the attractive Zeena, who he starts seeing on the side.  In the book, he intentionally gives the DT-enthralled husband rubbing alcohol to drink, hoping to knock him out so that he can tryst with Zeena.  In the film, it’s an accidental mix-up, which leads to the husband’s death.  Still it hangs over Carlisle internally.

He starts learning Zeena’s coded system for signaling a blindfolded mentalist the cues he needs to “read minds” and “tell the future” but he decides to make off with the young, gorgeous, good-hearted Molly (Coleen Gray) and make it big.

The novel is an excellent crime story, much more lurid, dark, deeply Freudian, cynical of religion, magic, everything.  And the book has the killer ending, pulling the story full-circle from its beginning introduction of “the geek”.  I was actually surprised that the film had that final scene, poignant as it is.  Only the film has a bit more, finalizing a hopeful redemption, the classic “Hollywood ending”.  Still, the film does introduce “the geek”, the man so low in life so inveterate an alcoholic, that he bites the heads off chickens is only a breath away from death or the madhouse.

And the film does have a darkness, perhaps even great perversity.  It doesn’t go as far as the book.  How could it in 1947?  Maybe in 1931.  Still, it’s a good noir.   I do recommend it.  But I recommend the novel even more so.

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