(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.