Noirvember Review: Nightmare Alley
Every November fans of cinema celebrate one of the most influential genres of moviedom, the film noir. This cinematic movement from the 1940’s through the 1950’s, presented audiences with edgy pulp crime flicks with a dark and moody stylization. Film noir gives moviegoers no shortage; troubled antiheroes, seductive femme fatales, tenacious detectives, ruthless villains, urban wastelands, and violent crimes. This month I will be looking at some of the best noir movies for what has been dubbed Noirvember.
Hollywood superstar Tyrone Powers built himself into a cinema icon playing a host of action heroes. He first burst on the screen in the 1930’s and became a reliable go-to for playing sword- swinging swashbucklers, most memorably his turn as Zorro in the Mark of Zorro. However, following a stint in the Marines during World War II Powers returned to Hollywood hoping to evolve and take on more serious roles like 1946’s Razor’s Edge. In 1947, the actor convinced the powers that be at Twentieth Century Fox to purchase the rights to the William Lindsay Gresham novel Nightmare Alley to be his next starring vehicle and show moviegoers what he could really do as an actor.
After years of living a shifty and aimless life, Stan Carlisle has found his calling in a carnival sideshow. Using his natural gifts of a silver tongue and ability to fleece the rubes, Stan works with the mentalist Zeena and her alcoholic assistant Pete. He soon learns that before they were a carnie act, Zeena and Pete were world renowned for a trick where they would masterfully cold-read large audiences with a carefully constructed code they still keep secret. After some deadly liquid persuasion to Pete, Stan is made a full partner in the act and Zeena teaches him the trick. After his fellow performers turn their back on Stan and “suggest” he marry Electra the Electric Lady, he leaves them behind and takes Zeena’s act for his own. With Electra, real name Molly, as his naïve wife and assistant he receives bookings at posh clubs in major cities. Along the way he crosses paths with the clever psychologist, Lilith Ritter who is working her own hustle and may-or-may-not be playing him. Before long Stan begins taking his act beyond mere trickery into an uncomfortably faux-spiritual direction to fully take advantage of the pockets of his wealthy admirers. Unfortunately he takes it too far and ends up killing a man who discovers that he is a fraud. Now as a fugitive living on the lam, it is now his turn to look to the bottle for solace as he returns to a rundown carnival only this time he can only find work at the bottom of the barrel as the “geek”.
Nightmare Alley proves that film noir does not need to take place in a hard boiled urban wasteland, and that this style works perfectly in the world of surly grifters and slick con artists in the carnival. This is a rough and seedy setting filled with has-beens hoping the bottle will help them forget and never-were’s hoping for a big break which will likely never come. If this does not fit perfectly with film noir I do not know what does. The biggest cautionary tale of this sideshow is the “geek”. In a somber scene the character Pete alludes to the fact that in a past life their particular geek was a headlining act, now he’s a severe alcoholic promoted as something more beast than man. Once Stan learns the backstory of this strange man hidden in the shadows, we in the audience get the feel in our gut to what Stan’s ultimate destiny will be. He may rise to the highest of highs, but his ultimate destiny will be living as an act in a cage, being gawked at by the very people he once delighted in fleecing. While Stan’s fate is sealed, watching his rise and plummet from grace is nothing short of compelling. At the behest of the studio an ending was tacked on wherein, Molly promises to look after Stan in his new role, giving the poor guy a small glimmer of hope. Though Nightmare Alley is remembered for it’s sideshow setting, the tonality of the film does shift as Stan takes his act to the world of high-society and wealth as he targets bigger rubes. Visually everything is cleaner and more polished and a more art-deco design takes over. That being said an edgy darkness still lingers over the film, especially after Stan crosses paths with his foil, Lilith a manipulative psychoanalyst who takes great joy in conning the con artist.
This movie was truly a favorite for it’s leading man Tyrone Powers. As the actor was trying to prove to everyone he wanted to take on more challenging roles, his performance in Nightmare Alley proved he was more than up to the task. Never swashing a single buckle, he gives a deep well-rounded performance as a cocky con artist unafraid of pulling scams at the highest levels, even manipulating cops and members of high-society. At one point in the movie he talks about how this is the kind of life that he was made for and Powers truly convinces the audience of this. His portrayal of Stan almost seems effortless in the way he operates and it sucks you in as you watch him. Owning every scene she is in is Joan Blondell as the mentalist Zeena, who serves as a sort of mentor to Stan. She truly portrays a woman with a stiff upper lip, who has watched her career fall from a dizzying height and rather than be bitter or depressed, she took it as a lesson and it made her tougher. Her biggest concern at this point in her life is watching out for Pete after his years of watching her back. Blondell herself, had grown up in the circus which no doubt gave the actress a great source of inspiration to draw from while crafting this amazing character. Contrasting this is Coleen Gray as Molly, a bright-eyed and naïve young woman who is just as taken with Stan’s smoothness as the pigeons who flock to the show. Even after she is pretty-much forcibly married to Stan she is still smitten by him and he sees no problem in abusing this trust as part of his act. As Molly is pulled deeper and deeper into Stan’s grift she is faced with an increasingly moral dilemma, and when it inevitably breaks her it proves to be the beginning of the end for Stan.
Sadly the movie was a box office flop as it seemed audiences still were hesitant to accept Tyrone Powers unless he was swinging a sword around. Though at one point the name of his character Stan Carlisle became a code word among real-life con artists to let each other know they were on the level. That being said this is a film noir which has only grown in popularity since it’s initial release slowly but surely building an audience. Nightmare Alley has even achieved the rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And for good reason the unique setting of a seedy carnival sideshow opens the door for any number of fascinating and broken people who the audience can truly get attached to on some level. This says nothing for the unique inside look at this world the movie gives us. William Lindsay Grisham, who wrote the novel the movie is based on, was a man constantly looking for some internal fulfillment though he inevitably discovered anything he looked to was merely a scam. It is this cynical viewpoint the story is built on as it exposes the backstage workings of those looking to take advantage of the people under the guise of entertainment or spiritual enlightenment.
Earlier this year Hollywood heavy hitters Guillmero del Toro and Leonardo DiCaprio announced they had begun work on a remake of Nightmare Alley. Seemingly the perfect vehicle for these two talents, this has drawn new attention to the original film. Seemingly caught up in an endless cycle of copyright lawsuits for a number of years, but now the dust has settled and this noir masterpiece is more easily available.