Sunday, May 16, 2010

Nightmare Alley (1947)

In the late 1940s Tyrone Power was trying desperately to move away from his matinee idol/swashbuckling hero image. Nightmare Alley in 1947 took him about as far from that image as possible. It’s the story of the rise and fall of a carnival mentalist who becomes a highly successful phoney spiritualist. It was based on an extraordinarily bleak and powerful novel by William Lindsay Gresham.

This was very much a personal project for Tyrone Power, who was a big enough star to get the picture made despite the opposition of Darryl F. Zanuck who thought it was far too bleak for 1947 American audiences. It turned out that Zanuck was right. Zanuck insisted on changing the ending (and very nearly ruined the movie and destroyed the whole point of the story with a contrived sentimental ending) but the movie was a box office disaster anyway.

Despite the terrible ending it’s still a powerful and extremely dark movie. The world of the carnival is based on cynical deception of the rubes, but the world outside the carnival is even more corrupt and people outside the carnival crowds are just as gullible as the rubes. The plot of the novel follows a beautifully planned out and executed ironic trajectory, which Zanuck managed to wreck almost entirely.

Tyrone Power’s performance is superb. His character, Stan Carlisle, is both an innocent and a corrupt cynical operator lacking entirely in moral scruples. Joan Blondell is magnificent as Zeena, a mentalist who teaches Stan the ropes. Blondell was always terrific at comedy but here she’s given the oppprtunity to shw her serious acting chops and she grabs that opportunity with both hands. Helen Walker is very good and rather unsettling as a psychologist who turns out to be even more corrupt than Stan.

The movie is totally noir in its visual style – this is one of the most impressive features of the film. The carnival background and the techniques of deception are explained in fascinating detail. The commentary track is by James Ursini and Alain Silver, noted writers on film noir. They make the claim that Stan’s psychic powers aren’t completely bogus, that he seems to have some real powers. I’m very sceptical of that claim. Stan obviously is very very good at reading people. They also make the claim that because Zeena’s tarot cards seem to tell the truth that the film is suggesting that some psychic powers are real. Again I disagree. Zeena is extremely perceptive, she understands people (that’s why she can con them so effectively) and to be honest you don’t need to have psychic powers to see where Stan is headed. Their points about Stan’s being unscrupulous but not really evil are more valid. He is an interesting and complex character – he will sacrifice people to get what he wants but he isn’t really malicious.

If you can ignore the last scene it’s a great movie. Just pretend the film ends (as it should have) with the line, “Mister, I was born for it.”


  1. A brilliant film - a noir masterpiece and one of my favourites from this period. A truly odd and nightmarish film full of the uncertainties of post war America....thanks for reviewing this.

  2. Great review. I watched this film last year for the first time and was completely blown away. It's gorgeous to look at, and the Creepy Carnival setting is one that I always have a soft spot for. I wish there'd been more Carnival Noir!

    As to Tyrone actually having Powers (see what I did there?), I agree with you in disagreeing with the commentary track. The whole point is that he's a perceptive, charismatic, amoral charlatan, a vulture preying on folks' grief. The lengths to which the film goes to explain his "gift" should remove any "real powers" question.

    My mom is a big fan of John Edward (the "I speak with dead people" guy who had a show on TV for a while in the states), and has in fact seen him live a few times. I want to force her to watch this movie, b/c what Stan does here is EXACTLY what Edward is doing, right down to the getting rich off people's grief.

    If John ends up a geek, though, I guess it'll all be square. ;)

  3. Vicar, I totally agree about carny noir. Film noir and a carnival setting are a perfect match and it surprises me that the possibilities of this combination weren't exploited more often. Hitchcock used the combination quite well in Saboteur.

    Actually carnival settings seem to work well in any genre. They also work well in horror. And Carny, an almost forgotten Jodie Foster movie from 1980, shows that it works in offbeat and slightly dark romantic films as well.