The Most Beautiful Fraud: Nightmare Alley
Judging a movie by its potential is probably skirting the edge of fairness, but the creepy 1947 carnival-noir Nightmare Alley tempts pretty strongly in that direction. The feeling it finally leaves you with is an unsatisfying one, both in the way it frequently opens up possibilities it doesn’t quite live up to and in the way its final scene, which should be a funereal stroke of fate, is turned into a studio-mandated happy ending. But it’s still got so much ambition, and takes such a bold and different approach than so many other post-war noir films, that it seems insufficient to leave it with its established reputation as a second-rate crime drama.
Much of the credit for this can be given to the cast, who imbue a fairly predictable story with emotional highs and lows that they wring out of their characters with great skill. Tyrone Power, playing the cut-rate hustler Stanton Carlisle, had been looking to break away from his reputation for playing swaggering, heroic matinee idols, and saw crime drama as a chance to do that; his performance is more impressive here than in most of his action-hero roles, and shows a willingness to take mean advantage of his lover-man image that’s alternately brave and disturbing. Joan Blondell, years past her wise-cracking doll years, heads up a collection of top-shelf performances by the women of Nightmare Alley; she imbues what could have been a blowsy stereotype or an easy victim with a sense of intelligence, self-reliance, loyalty, dignity, and, ultimately, reluctant degradation. But there are other virtues as well: the movie has quite a striking look, quirky and weird, with director Edmund Goulding and cinematographer Lee Garmes taking full advantage of the sprawling traveling circus set FOX constructed for the film. And Jules Furthman’s screenplay isn’t in the same league as the ones he turned out for Mutiny on the Bounty or his collaborations with Hawks, Bogart and Bacall, but it’s still a solid piece of work.
Power’s Stanton is a sweaty, insinuating hood, simultaneously absorbed with and repelled by the carny life. In every scene he’s in, he knows people are looking at him, fascinated by his muscles, his cruel good looks, and his patter, and he makes no bones about feeling superior to the rubes in the audience. He’s forever on the make for new ways to milk them. Blondell is Mademoiselle Zeena, the show’s resident fortune-teller, running a water-tight act with her dissipated husband (Ian Keith), using a series of coded signals to pull just the sort of hustle Power is looking for. Still lovely and statuesque in her early 40s, Blondell has settled into a lived-in beauty that sends out waves of familiarity, the intimidating sexuality of a woman who knows she’s past youthful adorability but has still figured out a way to make it so men can’t take their eyes off of her. The two have an instant and uncomfortable attraction.
Using his easy charisma on fellow carny “Electra” (portrayed by the beautiful Colleen Gray*, who was only an average actress but brought tons of charm to the role, sipping on Cokes and plucking at her fraying fishnets like a fussy teenager when not hypnotizing audiences with her lightning act), he learns about the code used by Blondell and Keith — and its enormous potential earning power. Blondell won’t sell the act, reckoning it’s her only chance at a comfortable retirement, but Power sets out to pry it from her. This sends the machinery of the plot into action, and Power and Gray, now on their own, begin using the act in increasingly reckless ways. Once they fall in with manipulative psychologist Dr. Lilith Walker (a magnetic Helen Walker*, the third of the movie’s superb female performances), the tension begins to stretch beyond toleration. Before pulling back from a brink rarely seen outside the likes of Freaks, Nightmare Alley sends Power into a spiral of doom predicted from the very first shots of the movie.
I don’t mean to overpraise Nightmare Alley; it’s got more than its share of problems. It’s too long, for one thing, and slows down considerably when it drifts away from the carny setting. There are moments of excellence in the script (a scene between Power and Blondell in the front seat of a truck is absolutely gorgeous, as is a moment where Keith displays his cold-reading powers to a credulous Power), but it lacks the gritty pop of great noir. But it’s far better than it has any right to be, and its direction and cinematography hover at the upper edges of good, if they never quite make it to excellence. It also deserves credit for taking a lot of chances it didn’t have to take. The construction of the carnival set, and the exploitation of it in some key shots; the risky implication that hulking strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki) is a homosexual; shading the perfection that was Power with creepy self-destructive tendencies; the gifting of hardworking Joan Blondell with a remarkably deep and meaty role — all of these contribute to making what rightfully ought to be a forgettable noir into something special.
*: Both Gray and Walker had fascinating histories. Gray, a real-life farmer’s daughter type, starred in a handful of well-known westerns and crime dramas (noir fans probably know her best as Sterling Hayden’s girl in The Killing), but after having a family, she took herself out of secular Hollywood, making only religious films after the 1950s and once appearing before Congress to lobby for prayer in public schools. Walker, too, had a promising career (she plays Richard Conte’s wife in The Big Combo, one of my favorite noir films), but she was behind the wheel during a drunk driving accident in 1947 where one of three hitchhiking soldiers she’d picked up was killed. She never really recovered; she retired from acting at 35, and within a dozen years, she was dead of cancer.