Who wasn’t a fan of Tyrone Power in 1947? He was all dreamy! He looked great in period costume, with a rapier, and with a lacy cravat. He made movie-love and swashbuckled like a champ. He was Zorro, for chrissakes. But 20th Century Fox’s biggest star wanted to prove his range, (being the heir to the Tyrone Power acting dynasty and all – following his Father, Grandfather, and Great-Grandfather, all named Tyrone Power) and he campaigned for the lead in the film version of William Lindsay Gresham’s gothic sleazoid carnival noir, Nightmare Alley. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck wasn’t pleased about it, but eventually relented, giving top production value to a film that would’ve ended up with b-status. What results is a sordid little movie made by some very talented folks.
Not that it benefited from that at the time – Fox didn’t publicize Nightmare Alley’s release and unceremoniously dumped it into a few theatres, just long enough for it to be disliked by critics and then locked away for years due to copyright disputes. Eventually released by Fox’s Noir imprint, Nightmare Alley’s finally been getting the love it deserves.
Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) weasels his way into carnival work and is fascinated by two acts – the geek, a howling drunk who bites off the heads of live chickens and is paid off with whiskey (a sideshow act which is quite illegal), and mentalist Mademoiselle Zeena (an excellent Joan Blondell, ingenue days firmly behind her, all patient and world-weary with her dark roots showing) who works with her drunkard husband Pete using an ingenious code to predict and answer burning questions from her audience. Stan wants to know the code and work with Zeena, but she remains loyal to Pete (hoping to send him to detox) and to keeping the secret of the code, which she plans to sell someday.
Then, Stan *accidentally* gives Pete a bottle of prop wood alcohol rather than moonshine which leads to his death. With little choice, Zeena teaches Stan the code, they fool around a bit, and it all results in a successful carnival act. Stan ends up as skilled in fake mind-reading as Zeena.
His girl on the side is Molly – Coleen Gray, as steadfast and adorable as ever, with an electric act where she gets to look like this:
Zeena finds out, and Stan and Molly end up married and ousted from the carnival. Stan gets a real tux and they start a classy new act, using the code in nightclubs. The beginning of the end (maybe the mid-point of the end) is when Stan meets a calculating female analyst, appropriately named Lilith (Helen Ritter in predatory masculine-cut 40’s suits), and they plot to fleece Lilith’s rich patients with Stan fencing messages from beyond the grave.
And it would’ve worked, too, if Stan didn’t enlist the help of naive young Molly to serve as a ghostly apparition, in a gorgeously shot garden scene where she emerges, back-lit in the woods while Stan and the dupe watch. After Molly’s ill-timed freak-out, Stan flees with the dupe’s money – or so he thinks.
Lilith, of course, is prepared with a double cross, and The Great Stanton ends up a poor old drunkard. What makes a geek, Nightmare Alley asks? Bad decisions. A God Complex. Analysts. Desperation. Alcohol.
Whether it’s the fault of the production code or Daryl F. Zanuck himself, here’s where Nightmare Alley cheats itself. Stan shows up at a carnival, inebriated, looking like this:
And that should be the end – pride goeth before a fall and all of that, but then we are treated to a sentimental coda where there is hope for Stan to reunite with Molly, as if the idea of Zorro spending the rest of his days out of his mind on moonshine and biting off poultry heads is just too much to bare.
But, it certainly wouldn’t be the first or last tacked-on ending to an otherwise hard-hitting film noir. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a consistently interesting one – without gangsters, detectives, or gun molls, Nightmare Alley manages to be genre defining with its carnival setting and strong performances. There’s something particularly seedy and anti-American about the carnival’s dirty underbelly. Some of Nightmare Alley’s strongest moments are veteran cinematographer Lee Garmes’ ambling tracking shots behind the carnival tents and away from the lights. There’s some great use of non-diegetic sound – at pivotal points in Stan’s downfall (mostly when he’s drinking and feeling guilty over Pete’s death), he hears the tortured howling of the geek. Brilliant.
Tyrone Power was quoted as saying “Charm is Bullshit”, and never has that sentiment been more apparent than in his portrayal of Stanton Carlisle. Power’s ‘The Great Stanton’ is a scheming opportunist – certainly, there’s no shortage of charm in his arsenal, but it has none of the warmth that made teen girls swoon. Handsome as ever (save the end, when Ben Nye transforms him into a hollow-cheeked ghoul), there’s still something markedly off about him, even in the early scenes with his narrowed, kohl rimmed eyes – swarmy through and through.
Alas, following one of his best performances, Tyrone Power never made another film noir. He did, however, go on a possibly romantic vacation with Cesar Romero and do a lot of critically acclaimed theatre.
‘Til we meet again – steer clear of the seers and stay out of the geek tent.