Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Nightmare Alley

Movies in the film noir genre are known for having a bleak view of human nature, but few are as overwhelmingly bleak as Edmund Goulding’s 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s classic noir novel Nightmare Alley. The movie traces the rise and fall of con man Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) as he goes from side show barker to nightclub mentalist to spiritual advisor for Chicago’s wealthiest citizens, all the while using and leaving behind the people that aid his success. Instead of a conventional morality that divides humans into good and evil, the film’s morality divides the world into grifters and marks (though neither group is mutually exclusive), and success only comes to those with the best cons.

Gresham’s novel opens with a fascinating explanation of how a traveling carnival manages to hire a geek, a performer who bites the heads off of live chickens. The explanation involves finding a man at his lowest point–alcoholic and broke–and exploiting him to the point where he will do anything for his bottle a day. The movie has a similar scene at the beginning without explaining most of the grisly details of the geek’s job. Though we only see the geek at a distance in the movie, screaming as the d.t.’s take over, he remains an important figure throughout, and this question about the nadir of human existence hangs over the rest of the movie, even as Stan makes his meteoric rise as a mentalist and spiritual leader.

Late in the movie, Stan’s wife and partner in his mentalist act, Molly (Coleen Gray), warns Stan that he’s gone too far by promising to resurrect the dead love of a wealthy older man. She warns specifically against the blasphemy that such a con entails: God will punish him for this sin. This is the one sign of conservative, conventional morality sneaking into the movie, and while it does seem to determine Stan’s fate as his life starts to fall apart, it’s not unproblematic. God, in Molly’s estimation, is not the ultimate force for good in the universe, but is, instead, the ultimate grifter who has a lock on the life and death game that Stan is trying to play. Stan would have been fine scamming rich people at the night club with his mentalist schtick. In fact, he would have also been fine with his next con, using a corrupt psychologist (Helen Walker) to gain access to the secrets of Chicago’s wealthy. These crimes would have gone unpunished, as we see from Walker’s ultimate success. It is only by stepping into God’s game that Stan reaches too far.

This is a level of nihilism reminiscent of Sartre or Camus. In that, the movie is surprisingly faithful to the mood of the novel, even if it doesn’t get into all the gruesome details of life in a carnival side show. In fact, one has to wonder how this movie got made at all in the Hollywood system. Sure, 1947 is the height of the postwar film noir cycle, but I can think of few movies that are this nihilistic. Detour comes to mind, but that was made outside of the system on a shoestring budget. Sweet Smell of Success is the movie that I thought of most often, though Burt Lancaster independently financed that film through his own production company. Both movies create a world that has little space for goodness, and where the quest for power and success leads characters to give up their humanity easily. (I could throw Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole in here, as well.)

With Sweet Smell of Success, there is also a relevant comparison between the performances of Tony Curtis and Tyrone Power. Both give performances that were the high points of their respective careers, and both roles capitalize on the dark side of their matinee-idol good looks. Power often regretted the light adventure roles that required little of him other than looking good on screen, and he was ready to hang up his screen acting career when Billy Wilder offered him the lead in Witness for the Prosecution. Tragically, Power died of a heart attack on the set of his next film, and he never got the chance to have a shot at another role that would allow him to show the depth he could achieve. But he’s perfect in Nightmare Alley, and he uses his charm and good looks to keep the audience engaged with a character who is completely unredemptive. It’s a delicate balancing act that few actors could pull off.

Nightmare Alley ends with a somewhat upbeat note, but, like the film’s nod to conventional morality, it falls apart once one considers what it means in the context of the movie. The film cycles back to the beginning in a sense, and we know Stan’s ultimate fate because we saw how that particular story worked out earlier. I love that this movie stays so uncompromising in its bleakness, and that it takes a Hollywood star and challenges everything that gave him that status.

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