Nightmare Alley

Jul 08, 2021
Web Exclusive

By Stephen Danay

Imogen Sara Smith has become a regular fixture on any noir or noir-adjacent Criterion Collection releases over the last few years. As the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, she’s ideally suited to discuss Nightmare Alley, a film that is noir to its very bones, but is set in rural carnival grounds and more concerned with spirituality and the illusion of self-actualization than it is with gangsters or murder.

The film begins by introducing us to the denizens of a traveling carnival, specifically Stan Carlisle, an ambitious new hire who has ingratiated himself with Zenna, a once-famous fortune teller and “clairvoyant” now reduced to sideshow acts in order to support her husband’s debilitating alcoholism. Stan’s affair with the good-hearted Zeena – of herself she says, “a heart as big as an artichoke; there’s a leaf for everyone” – is merely a pretext to learn the code that she and her husband invented to camouflage her mind-reading tricks. Once he has it, he runs off with the beautiful young Molly and the two of them shoot to stardom as a husband/wife mentalist team, and begin entertaining the Chicago elite at fancy nightclubs. There, Stan meets Lilith Ritter, a skeptical psychologist with whom he forms a plan to swindle the city’s upper-class rubes. But Lilith’s machinations and Stan’s guilt over past transgression threaten to catch up with them.

If that makes it sound like there’s a lot going on in Nightmare Alley, it’s because there is. The film packs an epic rise and fall narrative into less than two hours, following a man driven not by money or women or even power, but by knowing he’s superior to the people he preys upon with trickery and false hope. Screenwriter Jules Furthman – working from a novel by William Lindsay Gresham – smartly introduces Stan’s tragic backstory right as he’s done his worst, committing an act from which there’s no turning back. As canny and cynical as they come, Stan is just as susceptible as the next person when it comes to false hope and easy outs. Tyrone Power rose to stardom in the late 30s and early 40s as a matinee idol for 20th Century Fox, playing romantic leads and swashbuckling heroes. Nightmare Alley was his attempt at a more complex, mature role and he succeeded mightily, using his boyish good looks and confidence to create a character as appealing as he is despicable.

Power has a different leading lady for each act of the film, and all three bring something interesting to the table. As Zeena, Joan Blondell shines by leaning into her age. In her early forties, Blondell was no longer the peppy, wise-cracking ingenue she’d been in the early 30s when her career took off. Still beautiful and expressive, the pronounced bags under her eyes and the bruised warmth she brings to Zeena makes your heart break for her when Stan ditches her for a younger woman. As that younger woman, Colleen Gray is very much the ingenue, with a Disney princess face and a bright-eyed innocence that slowly curdles as she’s taken in by Stan’s schemes and cruelty. She’s featured in what might be the most striking visual moment in the film, a carnival trick where electricity dances between her fingers as she sits in an electric chair. Equal parts chintzy and eerie, the image is a microcosm of the film’s themes of deceit and facade. Last but not least is Helen Walker as Lilith Ritter, a scheming psychologist who proves to be Stan’s match. Less sexualized than most noir femme fatales, Walker’s character draws the line between the film’s obsession with spirituality – both false and genuine – and the study of psychology, which was just entering the mainstream in the post-war era.

Although the Hays Code saddles the film with a somewhat unbelievably happy ending, Nightmare Alley remains one of the stranger and more disturbing films of the noir cycle, drawing connections between low-brow carnival trickery and high-minded concepts of psychology and theology. Its warning about the dangerous of demagoguery and easy answers where none exist would pair excellently with A Face in the Crowd, also recently released by Criterion.

In addition to the usual suite of supplemental material one expects of a Criterion release, the Blu-ray edition of Nightmare Alley also includes half a dozen of Zeena’s tarot cards, including Stan’s perpetual proxy, The Hanged Man.


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