Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley

(Part Two of the Siren's thoughts on Nightmare Alley. Part One is here.)

You have to say one thing for Tyrone Power, even in a depressing movie he has a way of lifting a gal's spirits. The more the Siren reads about Power, the more affection she develops for the man. According to everyone who ever knew him, Power desired two things above all: respect as an actor, and a happy, stable family. Life gave him too little of either. Several of his adventure movies are still well-loved, such as The Black Swan and The Mark of Zorro, but few were the roles that gave him a chance to created a complex character. Nightmare Alley shows he had real ability under the gloss.

That Power worked so hard to put Nightmare's Stanton Carlisle on the screen tells you something about him as an actor. Take a look at the brilliant Montgomery Clift, for example, who has a large reputation for emotional nakedness on-screen. Given the chance to play Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, Clift bailed at the last minute, saying he didn't want to play more love scenes opposite an older woman after doing The Heiress. Others have noted that the part might have rung a bell (more like a cathedral) regarding Clift's relationship with far-older singer Libby Holman. Power, on the other hand, with a resume dominated by candy-box historicals and swashbucklers, fought long and hard for the chance to play the lead in a movie that equates entertainment with fraud and ends with his character barely hanging onto humanity.

Nightmare Alley opens in late afternoon at a carnival--not a big flossy one, but a low-end affair serving the shirtsleeved masses. Power is killing time before his act goes on, snapping his gum and restlessly wandering around the grounds. He starts watching the sideshow geek, the debased individual whose "act" consists of biting the heads off chickens. Salary: one bottle of rotgut a day. Behind the geek's barker we see a big painting of what appears to be the Piltdown Man on a bad day, but we never see the face of the real geek. Instead, the camera focuses on the barker's patter, the geek's screams and Power's reaction. "How does a guy become a geek?" wonders Power to another worker. He doesn't get a real answer. But if you have watched much film noir at all, the question alone is the foreshadowing equivalent of dropping a counterweight on your head.

Stanton is working the crowds for the carnival's phony seeress, Zeena (fabulous Joan Blondell, sexy as ever, but just past the point where "blowzy" got permanently affixed to her description). But that's a stopgap. Already Stanton is angling to get the code Zeena used for a mentalist act with her old partner, Pete, now a hopelessly broken-down alcoholic. Stanton is clearly having an affair with Zeena, and clearly he is using her, despite some off-handed regard for the woman. Stanton drops hints, but soon realizes Zeena is still in love with Pete, and won't betray her old partner or their act. Pete, despite his condition, won't give up the code either. One night Stanton tries to ply the drunk with a bottle of cheap booze, but it doesn't work, and Stanton accidentally swaps the hooch for a bottle of wood alcohol. That's the end of Pete, and Stanton gets the code soon after.

That's just the beginning of Stanton's climb. All along his real attraction was to "electric girl" Molly (the remarkably beautiful Coleen Gray). Soon enough he has left Zeena and the carny behind. He marries Molly and moves to a more sophisticated act in a Chicago club, stringing along another group of suckers. At first the new marks differ only in wardrobe and grammar, but one night up turns psychiatrist Lilith (Helen Walker). She's running her own sort of game, secretly recording the socialites who pour out their neuroses to her. She lures Stan into joining forces, and together they set up the biggest con yet: disguising Molly as the long-dead love of a wealthy old man. But Molly can't go through with it, and the scheme unravels. Stan has the tables turned on him by Lilith. He goes on the run, and becomes utterly dependent on booze as he hops freight cars. Eventually--inevitably--he winds up back at the carny, willing to do any job...

Power was about 33 when the movie was made, already getting a bit hooded in the eyes and softer around the jaw, but still completely gorgeous. His looks get little direct comment in the movie, but Power's beauty is vital. You don't have to wonder why Blondell doesn't seem put off by Stanton's barely concealed ambition. Stanton knows something Power himself must have known well: Looks matter, they matter a lot. See the elderly lady in the Chicago nightclub blush and lower her lashes at Stanton's approach. Watch the way Stanton draws back when Molly's strong-man boyfriend objects to his presence. The retreat isn't that of a man afraid of a beating, but that of someone so sure of his attractiveness he can pick his moment, any old moment.

One strength of the script is the way it fleshes out Stanton's background. To fellow carnies at a roadhouse he talks of life in a orphanage, and how he learned to feign religious devotion because it deflected the brutality of the people running the place. His parents? "They weren't much interested." Fakery has been his survival mechanism for a long time.

That doesn't mean fakery is the whole of Stanton's persona, however. There's a part of him that wants something real. In a scene with the boozer Pete, played with amazing fervor and pathos by Ian Keith, Stanton is immediately drawn in by Pete's "psychic" spiel: "I see a boy...a dog..." Immediately Stanton says yes, that's me! that's my dog! "There's always a dog," says Pete, with a malicious, wheezing laugh. Power moves back like a crestfallen boy--only for an instant. Then he's back to his main plan, trying to hoodwink Pete into getting the code.

Power's best scene in Nightmare Alley comes after Pete's death, when the carny is about to be shut down by a local sheriff. The manager, Zeena, Molly and the other employees all try to get around the sheriff, to no avail. Stanton, possessed of the all-important code and emboldened by weeks of perfecting his delivery with Zeena, persuades the manager to let him have a go. In a tent stripped of its garish scenery, crowds gone and the night-time lighting showing the seediness more than ever, Stanton starts to talk to the sheriff. I sense things about you, he tells the sheriff. There are people who are jealous of you. Stanton mentions the sheriff's wife (there's always a wife). As he talks more and more, Stanton unravels the sheriff's life, bit by bit, breaking down the man's defences. The sheriff starts to glow with the same interest we saw Stanton show Pete--this man sees me, he understands me. Stanton, vampire-like, grows stronger and more confident by the moment. The sheriff leaves, dumbstruck with gratitude for the "truths" he has been shown, and Stanton seems invincible. From here on, until his schemes unravel, Power gives Stanton a much cooler and more collected physicality. When we see him working, Stanton no longer seems restless or nervous. His shoulders are squared, every expression is calculated for effect. His guard comes down at times--when Lilith talks to him about Pete, when he is with Molly, when Zeena and the strong man come for a visit--but until his career as a mentalist crashes to a close, Stanton's poise leaves him completely only when he is alone.

Power's transformation in the sheriff scene is so strong that many viewers, including James Ursini and Alain Silver, who provide the commentary track on the DVD, maintain that the scene shows Stanton has actual psychic abilities. The Siren isn't so sure. Not long before we saw Pete deceive with equal ease and aplomb. To the Siren, the sheriff scene reads like a master con artist finally reaching the very peak of his abilities, becoming more daring with each well-timed, educated guess. There are elements of the supernatural in Nightmare Alley, including Zeena's fearfully accurate tarot cards, and the Miltonian question of whether Stanton's Satanic ambition angers God. But the actual abilities of the humans are left to the imagination. You can read the movie as suggesting a spiritual world, but you don't have to believe Stanton has access to it. And you can also give it a straight Darwinian reading: There is no Guiding Force out there, only the "blind, pitiless indifference" of life's long con.

If Stanton does have psychic gifts, his abilities are fitful and desert him when most needed, after he encounters Lilith. She's another con artist, but she has one essential Stanton lacks: utter ruthlessness. Stanton, haunted by the accidental death of Pete and showing the irritability of the guilty when Zeena shows up late in the film, has a conscience he must fight. Walker, an actress with the slanted eyes and slightly flattened features of a Persian cat, shows no emotion or empathy. Stanton's the sheriff now, lured in by the way Lilith seems to understand his wants and conflicts. Her late-stage betrayal takes Stanton apart with terrifying ease. Power's face and body show him as crushed as he was by Pete, but this time he can't put the mask back on. It would be easier to see his character get shot. His subsequent slide into suicidal drinking doesn't seem like too big a stretch at all.

Siren fave Flickhead, in the comments to her previous post, called Nightmare Alley and The Shining "probably the two finest illustrations of alcoholism and alcoholic thinking ever committed to film," and went on to note "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." Power wasn't a big drinker (his vice was cigarettes, three to four packs a day), but he shows a deep understanding of addiction. Nightmare Alley was released after The Lost Weekend, but for the Siren, Power's portrayal of alcoholism was more devastating than Ray Milland's (and Milland was good indeed). Perhaps that's because Nightmare Alley isn't a "problem illness" film--it doesn't diagnose or sketch out a cure, it just puts the results up on screen.

Power is so good in Nightmare Alley that the Siren feels guilty about not giving him more credit previously. Not that she ever disliked Power (show me the woman who does), but the Siren admits she was too much in the sway of critics who dismiss him. ("Power was as much like a very nice bank clerk as ever," sighs David Shipman, describing The Razor's Edge. Pauline Kael called him "wanly miscast" in, of all things, The Mark of Zorro, one of Power's best swashbucklers.) Admittedly, there was always something guarded about Power as an actor. You seldom get the sense that you are seeing the whole of one of his characters on screen. The difference in Nightmare Alley (as well as in Witness for the Prosecution) is the way he takes that wariness, the reluctance to reveal, and uses it. When, back at the carny, he accepts that final job offer, Tyrone Power's still-beautiful face is as psychologically bare as any actor in noir.

24 comments:

Alex said...

I think that you should examine Power's two later films - The Eddy Duchin Story and The Long Grey Line - as contrasts to Nightmare Alley.

Karen said...

Oh, Siren, what a great analysis. I felt like I was taking a bath in it!

I agree with you--the scene with the Sheriff in no way indicates that Stanton had real psychic abilities. Stanton was a con artist and a seducer (aren't they the same thing?), and the same mojo he worked on Molly he works on the sheriff. In a way, that scene with Pete seals the deal for him--his suppression of the vulnerability he shows inadvertently over the dog gives him the strength to wield that same power when he has to. Pete, by crushing him, also destroyed his last doubt.

There are so many horrors in this brilliant, brilliant film, but one can certainly be its brutal, illusionless disavowal that there's any such thing as telepathy or psychic connection--there is only the con, which is only as good as the con artist. And there's a reason these folks are called CONFIDENCE artists, because that's what their real power is.

Campaspe said...

Alex, I saw The Long Grey Line, but eons ago, and I am afraid it is lost in my brain somewhere, along with other films I saw that didn't grab me for whatever reason. In what way are they contasts -- do you think they show other sides of Power's acting ability?

Campaspe said...

"There are so many horrors in this brilliant, brilliant film, but one can certainly be its brutal, illusionless disavowal that there's any such thing as telepathy or psychic connection--there is only the con, which is only as good as the con artist."

Dead on. Wish I'd written that myself.

Flickhead said...

"There is only the con, which is only as good as the con artist."

How true. Not to beat my alky bit into the ground (BTW, thanx for the mention), but isn't alcoholism a con game? Drinking to "be" different, when in fact it's merely an illusion? Carlisle gravitates towards anything that will keep him from being himself. It's a deep and complex character, steeped in fear, and something I'm unable to elaborate on here...which could be a good thing; no need to bore anyone into a coma.

Despite my positive feelings for The Lost Weekend, Wilder's is a tourist's observation of a dilemma. Nightmare Alley is an examination of self deception, nearing the core of addiction. Because, in the final analysis, alcoholism has less to do with drinking than jaundiced attitudes and warped values.


An excellent piece, Siren!

Karen said...

"Dead on. Wish I'd written that myself."

Oh, Siren, you give me chills.

Welcome back, by the way--we've missed you!

Peter said...

Ever since your first posting on Nightmare Alley, I've been thinking of seeing the film again, while having a fried chicken dinner.

Campaspe said...

Flickhead, I wish you WOULD elaborate, I have eaten up all your observations on this movie, which obviously spoke to you as it did to me. The Lost Weekend does observe alcoholism more than it invites us to experience it -- though the Siren can still close her eyes and remember Milland's agonizing walk up Second Avenue, in an attempt to hock his typewriter.

Karen, thanks! I always do come back ... or like Norma, should I say return?

Peter: Fried chicken. HA!

Flickhead said...

If it were twenty years ago, I could elaborate...or, rather, I'd have a lot more stamina to do so. Friends have urged me to write something substantial on booze movies and their proximity to reality. Perhaps one day, but not today. The upcoming Buñuelathon has sapped me...I'm composing a lengthy article for it, my first feature-length piece since last winter's rant on Henry Jaglom.

Meanwhile, Taryn Power, daughter of Tyrone Power and Linda Christian, is in Jaglom's uneasy Tracks. Is there the possibility of a Six Degrees of Tyrone Power game? I know there's got to be a Six Degrees of Henry Jaglom challenge for those of us demented enough to tackle it!

You're my favorite blogger, Siren. Hands down.

Cinebeats said...

This was a great read! I've never seen Nightmare Alley and now I really want to.

I've always liked Tyrone Power and never understood why critics often seemed to dislike him. I tend to like very low-key non-performers or totally over the top ones. It's the boring middle men that I often find annoying and a just plain drag to watch. Power's low-key acting always impressed me.

You've reminded me of an old memory... I got interested in Power after seeing a dreamy photo of him and his name in one of my grandmother's old film books (she had some big glossy Hollywood books that I now have). Power seemed like such a big Hollywood star with that impressive name and those great looks.

My favorite Power films are The Sun Also Rises, The Razor's Edge and Blood and Sand. Obviously I don't agree with David Shipman. Power was great in historical epics and played a terrific heroic figure, but I personally like him best playing world weary writers or newspaper men. Of course it probably helps that I love the books The Sun Also Rises and The Razor's Edge as well and I enjoyed the adaptations a lot. Because of this, I think he would have been amazing in Sunset Blvd. Until you mentioned it I had no idea he was planning on taking the role.

Oddly enough, even though the '60s and 70's are my favorite film decades, the '20s-40s is when most of my favorite books were written.

Dan Leo said...

Ah, thanks to the Siren's brilliant writing, this is yet another fine movie that I now look forward to re-watching.

She may not post often but when she does there's something there.

Mrs. R said...

Siren, thanks for your great analysis of this film and the work of this underrated actor. Power was given some horrific lines to say in many of his films - yet when they came out of his mouth, they sounded good. It takes a good actor to put over lousy dialogue, and he definitely had the goods.

It is a great pity that Darryl Zanuck was so angry at MGM for giving Power a small role when he was loaned out for Marie Antoinette that he swore he would never loan him out again. I think he really hurt Power's legacy. Power was offered Golden Boy, Paris in King's Row, and Ashley in Gone with the Wind - among others. Zanuck said no.

I think Power's best roles and performances were in Nightmare Alley, The Mark of Zorro, This Above All, Blood & Sand, The Razor's Edge, The Eddy Duchin Story and Witness for the Prosecution - not to mention the early comedies such as Cafe Metropole and Love is News with Loretta Young. I hope these are released on DVD soon. I just saw Cafe Metropole at the Cinecon Convention, and the audience loved it.

Since next year is the 50th anniversary of Power's death, let's hope for more from the studio that screwed him after he made them a fortune.

Campaspe said...

Flickhead -- aw, shucks. There was a whole cycle of alcoholism movies that I would bracket with The Lost Weekend on one end and Days of Wine and Roses on the other. Indeed they would make for fascinating comparison.

Cinebeats, it was Montgomery Clift who almost got the part in Sunset Boulevard, but now that you mention it Power might have made a fascinating Gillis. He got along well with Billy Wilder, who like most others does not seem to have a bad word to say about Power as a person.

Dan, I keep trying to post more! but either I get bogged down in details or some virus hits la famille Campaspe, it never fails.

Mrs R, I completely agree about Zanuck's refusal to lend out Power. He was not even that badly used in MA -- certainly he was no more in the background than he was in The Rains Came.

Cinebeats said...

it was Montgomery Clift who almost got the part in Sunset Boulevard

Oops! I read too fast obviously. Or maybe my imagination just took over? I do think Power would have been a really interesting choice for the film. On the other hand I don't think Clift (who I do like a lot too), would have worked well at all in the role so I'm glad he bailed.

Campaspe said...

Holden (who was, of course, a real-life alcoholic) had an unforgettable air of self-loathing in the part that I am not sure either Power or Clift could have equaled, but I agree that Power as Gillis sparks the imagination more than Clift. Clift draws your sympathy even in unsympathetic roles and I think that would have skewed the movie too much.

Ben said...

Loved this part 2 look at the movie. Well worth waiting for.

I still remember Power's performance in Witness for the Prosecution, in which he goes from charming to chilling at the drop of a hat. As that was his last movie, I think it's safe to say that he was cut down in his prime.

Cinephile said...

Siren,
Great, great post, and great comments section, too! Thanks for mentioning Days of Wine and Roses, which remains one of the most harrowing movies I've ever seen-- it haunted me for weeks, and I think it's the best thing either Lemmon or Blake Edwards ever did.

A couple of summers ago, I watched Fallen Angel on DVD, and was immediately struck with Linda Darnell. I vowed to watch as many of her films as I could find, and thus caught up with Zorro and Blood and Sand (I love it, too, Cinebeats!), and really appreciated Tyrone Power for the first time. I'd seen him in things here and there but never given him a lot of thought; but he's so much fun, so full of high spirits and so committed to the action and melodrama of those films that I couldn't help but like him (there's also a good doc on the Zorro disc about his life). Your writing about Nightmare Alley makes me want to watch that one, too.

Vanwall said...

Wonderful examination, Siren! One of my favorite films of all time. Power's work here was brilliant, and the rest of the cast was just as good. I wrote about this on my blog a while ago, more of what impressed me as a kid, seeing it on TV for the first time, but it stuck with me forever - I started reading more of Gresham's work, as well, and now I'm a perpetual cynic.

Alex said...

"I saw The Long Grey Line, but eons ago, and I am afraid it is lost in my brain somewhere, along with other films I saw that didn't grab me for whatever reason. In what way are they contasts -- do you think they show other sides of Power's acting ability?"

They're both biopics and I've found biopics to be nearly impossible to do well - except in those two cases and Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch. In both pictures, Power starts off by doing his "charming" act - which, of course, is superlative but which he utilizes in many of his films. (Both biopics are about lower-class ethnic minorities becoming important lynchpins of American society)

The key comes as Power plays the last half of the lives of Duchin and Marty Marr. There both characters are nominally quite successful but also deeply disappointed in many ways. Nightmare Alley is in some basic way the same story - but these two movies try to deal with the effects of that disappointment over many years.

Sian said...

Hi there,

It's Sian (redvelvet). Have lost all contact details for you, but I'm going to be in NY in October and wondered if you'd like to meet up. (Sorry to take up posting space with this, but it's all I could think of.)

Campaspe said...

Darling woman, YES!!! I will clear the calendar. I have missed you terribly and was wondering where you had gone. Hope all is well. You can email me via the link on this site, or just type persephone1065@hotmail.com.

emmil said...

where is the movie "The Night watch" featuring Tyrone Power as an fvza agent.

JUAN. said...

"Cafe Metropol" and "Love is news" are two of the most charming comedies I've seen. Don't you think Tyrone Power and Loretta Young are the best looking couple ever to grace the screen? (other than Elizabeth Taylor and Monty Clift or Alain Delon and Romy Schneider).

Kate Dooley said...

Alcoholism isn't a personality disorder. It's a disease.