Thursday, July 26, 2007

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Is there anything better than seeing a great movie for the first time? (Aside from all the usual landmarks of one's personal life, of course.) The Siren was prepared to like Nightmare Alley, the 1947 noir set in the world of carnivals and con artists, but instead she loved it. She saw the film after a long week, punctuated by the baby's epic cold and sleep deprivation that turned the household into the garden party scene from The Manchurian Candidate. Given the Siren's low frame of mind Nightmare Alley should have depressed the living hell out of her. Instead she switched off the DVD player and immediately started proselytizing to Mr. C: "You HAVE to see this one!"

The Siren has spent some time on her blog discussing films that are often called noir, but really aren't, like Macao and Moonrise. No such uncertainty here. Nightmare Alley is noir, all right. But it has some aspects that set it apart, chiefly the budget. Most crime thrillers of the era had middling to dead-broke production values. This movie was the pet project of its star, Tyrone Power, who bought the rights to William Gresham's novel and then browbeat Darryl Zanuck and 20th-Century Fox into greenlighting the project. The crew was strictly A-list and the whole thing was put together with great care and ample money.

Certainly this movie stands out in the career of director Edmund Goulding. There are tragic moments in his prior movies--John Barrymore's pathetic death in Grand Hotel, Bette Davis feeling the sun on her hands for the last time in Dark Victory. But in other Goulding movies, people suffer in refined settings, and they do it in good taste. Hiring Goulding to direct Nightmare Alley was a bit like assigning James Ivory to adapt Last Exit to Brooklyn. How wonderful, then, that Goulding rose to the occasion.

While some contemporary critics (including the ever-prescient James Agee) were impressed by Nightmare Alley, others were repelled. (Check out this piece from the New York Times, where the anonymous critic takes out his tweezers and examines the film like a tick he just pulled off the family dog.) Despite the film's brilliance it isn't hard to understand the shock. Imagine you fell in love with Tyrone Power as he squired Sonja Henie around the ski resort or swept Maureen O'Hara into his chiseled pirate arms. There was nothing to prepare you for the sight of the most beautiful man in movies conning little old ladies and meeting a fate as dark as anything in American cinema.

Audiences sidestepped Nightmare Alley like a dead squirrel in the driveway. The movie had a short release. Zanuck yanked it out of theaters and stuck a sword back in Power's hand for Captain from Castile. Litigation between the producer and the company then kept it out of view for decades. Nightmare Alley achieved legendary status via long unavailability. Occasionally a private print would be screened, ensuring that word-of-mouth kept the memory alive for film lovers who weren't lucky enough to have seen it. Only in 2005 did Fox finally wrap up the red tape and release the movie on DVD.

(More on Nightmare Alley to come presently. Next: Tyrone Power.)


Flickhead said...

Nightmare Alley and The Shining are probably the two finest illustrations of alcoholism and alcoholic thinking ever committed to film.

Campaspe said...

Flickhead, I really want to go into that in the next post, too. Nightmare Alley was released after The Lost Weekend but in the end its portrayal of alcoholism had even more bite for me. Perhaps because this film and The Shining are not "problem illness" films--they don't seek to diagnose or sketch out a cure, they just put the results up on screen. I was struck by how dishonest the portrait of drinking, even in most other noirs, seemed by comparison.

Flickhead said...

Among its many qualities in this department, Stanton’s delusions of grandeur at odds with his low self esteem, the alcoholic ‘egomaniac with an inferiority complex.’ Plus the knowing scene of him succumbing to the bottle in his hotel room as the walls close in. Putting the booze to his lips, you can hear the faint screams of the geek rattling in his head.

For further research, check out Robert Kaylor’s intriguing Carny (1980).

In The Shining, Jack Torrence is an exact portrait of the geek, a man sliding irretrievably into the abyss.

goatdog said...

I always thought that no noir antihero was ever so completely and utterly destroyed as Power is in this film. It got hard to watch toward the end--other noir guys get killed, and that's that, but Power's destruction is perpetual. That this handsome A-list leading man demanded the opportunity to put himself and his screen image through such punishment is, I think, the most amazing thing about the film.

Karen said...

Oh, wow--Nightmare Alley! I first saw it on TV when I was probably in my teens, back in the 1970s. My sister and I used to troll the local TV stations for old movies, and we fell into this one. It blew our minds. Neither of us had ever heard the term "geek" before--to this day, I still think of decapitated chickens.

We had seen Tyrone Power as Zorro and as the bullfighter in Blood and Sand, and as Jesse James, and had become rather taken with his Black Irish charms. We were not prepared for Stanton Carlisle.

Power's pretty face (lord, did you ever see him in Lloyd's of London? He's as beautiful as a man can be) became coarser and more dissipated-looking as he aged; I had long assumed that he'd had a drinking problem and went the route of Errol Flynn (whose late films I can't even abide watching). I know now that I was wrong in this, but there's evidence that he wished he'd had the chance to succeed on something other than his looks. There must have been great satisfaction to him in taking that beauty and destroying it in Nightmare Alley.

And, yes, this is about as noir in terms of style and theme as a film can get. There was actually a terrific graphic novel made of the story a few years back by the artist Spain--based on the novel directly, not the film. It captures the same mood as the film does.

Vince said...

I stumbled onto what turned out to be the last television airing of Nightmare Alley for almost 15 years. I snapped up the DVD as soon as it came out. But seeing a pristine print of the film on the big screen earlier this month at the Noir City festival in Seattle was a revelation.

Exiled in NJ said...

Like you Siren, I've never seen this one, but the mention of Power brought back that piece you wrote on aging British actors of the 60's.

Unlike Grant and others, he did not age well and seeing him with thinning hair and puffy face in "Prosecution" a year before his death jars my senses.

Flickhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Flickhead said...

The showdown between Stan and Molly (Colleen Gray) in the hotel room, where she finally addresses and attempts to bypass his bullshit: the mention of God, in regard to his God complex. While I wouldn’t think this is the first time a Hollywood movie verbally referred to God, I also can’t remember one that actually had, at least not until the 1960s. That heated exchange is quite revolutionary for its time and undoubtedly turned a great many people off in the ‘40s.

WOR-TV in New York showed the film uncut (save for commercial interruptions) for years until the mid-1980s and their unfortunate turnover from cool local syndication to faceless cable “superstation.” Back then WOR also ran Peeping Tom unedited, long before anyone knew who Michael Powell was.

Rich said...

Yowsah! Once again the Siren rings the bell. "Nightmare Alley" is a solid noir and Ty Power's spiral down the vortex of self-loathing is memorable. (How did "Toastmaster General" GEORGIE JESSEL get the producing credit??)

If Sirenistas are looking for an interesting "B" movie companion piece, they might Netflix "The Amazing Mr. X" (aka "The Spiritualist") with Turhan Bey trying to bamboozle Lynn Bari. The content isn't as compelling, but the movie has some brilliant deep focus noir b&w cinematography from "The Prince of Darkness" John Alton.

Cinebeats said...

Next: Tyrone Power


Karen said...


S.J. Perelman has a fantastic piece (when I get home tonight, I'll try to find the exact citation) on George Jessel. He may have been reduced to "Hollywood's Toastmaster" in his later years, but in his prime, he was the Real Deal. In the meantime, you might look up his Wikipedia entry. It will open your eyes!

Alex said...

"Most crime thrillers of the era had middling to dead-broke production values."

But many (if not most) of the noirs that we best remember today were A pictures: Double Indemnity, Laura, Out of the Past, Gilda, The Big Sleep, The Postman Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce were all A pictures.

Alex said...

By the way, both the book and the movie are deeply anti-capitalist, as befitting a novel which was begun as stories being passed between two Lincoln Brigade volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.

Rich said...

Karen -- Thanks for the tip! I had no idea Jessel produced 24 movies for Fox, AND had a fling wtih the Mexican Spitfire!! (Ms Velez). I just remember Jessel in the 60's (when I was a teen) strutting around in an Army uniform trashing hippies (like me).

What a life! Gals! Guns! Silents! Talkies! Vaudeville, Broadway, Radio! And a cameo in "Valley of the Dolls"! Wow.

Karen said...

Rich--I'm sorry to be so late on this (I forgot; oops), and I don't know if you'll still even see this, but the Perelman piece on Jessel is called "The swirling cape and the low bow," and it's in a collection called The road to Miltown, or, Under the spreading atrophy.


Ben said...

Hi. I've read your fine blog a few times before, and when I saw this movie on DVD I wondered what you'd make of it. I found it stunning, myself.

One aspect that really sets it apart for me is Helen Walker's performance as Dr Ritter. She's an ambiguous figure, somewhat villainous, but against femme fatale type. Power, for example, easily turns down her sexual advances, beautiful though she is. Her power is more cerebral, and kind of wondrous to behold.

Do you have a take on Walker's career as an actress? I've read about her unlucky offscreen life and short career, but the only other movie in which I've seen her is Call Northside 777. She made Jimmy Stewart a good wife, but it wasn't as unique a performance.

surlyh said...


Long time no read. I also was lucky enough to watch this on tv when I was young and it always chilled me. I don't think I then realized how strange a role it was for a leading man like Power--more of a Lon Chaney part--but it's impact was undiminshed.

Rich (spoiler warning): The Amazing Mr. X is quite a dissappointment. Once you learn the spiritualist is a fake the fancy shots seem like a lie. Style without content, or in contradiction to it. What a waste.

Campaspe said...

Surly, I have missed you keenly and am delighted to have written something that drew you out once more. Don't be such a stranger.

surlyh said...


Thank you. I'm sure your insightful writing would have drawn me out long ago if I was there for the drawing. I've been a stranger to most of my old haunts for some time now.