The scene is a two-bit carnival, some time during the Depression. The man with the Cheshire Cat grin is Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power), and he’s grinning because he feels superior to the chumps and rubes who come to the carny every day and are hoodwinked by the games of chance or who believe what the fake fortune teller Zeena (Joan Blondell) tells them. Carlisle is also grinning because he knows that Zeena has a word code that she and her husband Pete (who was once a great mentalist but is now a hopeless drunk) used long ago to achieve fame and fortune; he knows that Zeena is vulnerable to his charms and hopes to seduce her and get the code from her.
But there’s fear behind Carlisle’s smile. He feels superior to the crowd but is fascinated by the carnival geek, an alcoholic so far gone he’s happy to bite the heads off live chickens for the princely sum of a bottle of hooch a day. Carlisle wonders how a man can get so low…and perhaps knows that one day he’ll find out.
Carlisle gets the code, and also the carnival’s Electric Girl, Molly (Colleen Gray). After being forced into a shotgun marriage by the other carnys when he seduces Molly, Carlisle heads to Chicago where he and Molly become a sensation with their “mind reading” act. But it isn’t enough for Carlisle, who soon joins forces with unscrupulous psychologist Lilith (Helen Walker) to get information on her clients. One client in particular, a wealthy man who wants to communicate with the spirit of his dead lover, stands to be Carlisle’s biggest “chump.”
Widely regarded as one of the grimmest film noirs, Nightmare Alley has long been out of circulation due to legal battles. Despite a studio-imposed, (relatively) happy ending, the film is brave for its time. With the exception of good-hearted Molly, every character is a liar; the “best” characters are just up front about their lies. Tyrone Power, the studio’s leading romantic actor, was eager for a chance to play a character outside his usual good-guy hero persona and took the role of a self-professed scoundrel who feels nothing but contempt for his fellow man and is willing to use people’s deepest fears and miseries against them if it will turn him a profit. And though the film’s content is much more subdued than that of the source novel (William Lindsay Gresham’s sleazy but smart book, one of my favorites, is out of print but well worth seeking out), it still includes geeks, alcoholism, the occult, premarital sex, psychiatry, spiritualism, and a discussion about the nature of blasphemy. Not your typical 1940s Hollywood fare.
The film is a must for anyone who’s a fan of or interested in film noir. Director Goulding uses stark black-and-white cinematography and unusual angles to create a mood of foreboding. Of particular note is the scene when Carlisle and Zeena talk before her fortune telling act. Carlisle’s face is in shadow, separated from his body by a sharp angle of black. It’s almost like watching a headless man.
Just as effective as the look of the film are its actors. Despite being far too old for the role, Power gives a strong performance as Carlisle, being both despicable and charming. Blondell is also good as Zeena, a woman who’s vowed to stand by her man but is vulnerable to a smooth-talking hottie like Carlisle. Gray is lovely and sweet as Molly; her standout scene is when she threatens to leave Carlisle, telling him his posing as a spiritualist is blasphemy. But the standout female performance is from Helen Walker as Dr. Lilith Ritter; her final scene, when she ruins Carlisle's life, is chilling.
Gresham’s book, while certainly not great literature, is pulp fiction of a higher order. The film of Nightmare Alley is one of the better adaptations I’ve seen. Some of the characters have been changed, but those changes are either do not detract from the story (Lilith is more evil in the book, and she is also Carlisle’s lover), or are improvements (Molly is more devoted to Carlisle in the book, but she is also quite stupid). My complaints – which prevent me from giving the film a five-skull rating – are the tacked-on ending imposed by the studio, and that the last third of the film, when Carlisle becomes a fake spiritualist putting the wealthy elite in touch with their dead loved ones, is too rushed.
The 20th Century Fox DVD has a lovely transfer. The extras are a trailer that looks like a work-in-progress – there are no titles and half the trailer has no sound – and a commentary by film scholars who discuss the film, the book, and how the movie fits into the noir tradition.