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The Magical and Seductive Power of ‘Nightmare Alley’

Although a departure from typical film noir narratives, its exploration of taboo is perfectly in line with the genre’s goals.
Nightmare Alley
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on November 14th, 2020

Welcome to The Noirvember Files, a new series dropping the spotlight on essential film noir selections. The titles celebrated here exemplify the style and substance of cinema’s grimiest, most-relatable underbelly. In this entry, we’re going for a wild ride with the carnival noir masterwork Nightmare Alley. This Noirvember, step right up and take in all the glory of the astounding performances and unconventional genre twists from this 1947 classic.

There’s a bit of magic in film noir. Not literal sorcery, of course. But something otherworldly in its allure. The genre is, generally speaking, grounded in reality. There’s nothing inherently fantastical about private investigators, salesmen, or reporters. The femme fatale, though she looms large in cinematic mythos, is not herself mythical. But somewhere between a dame entering a man’s life and the jig being up, a good film noir can accomplish something ineffably beguiling and even a little magical.

Granted, film noir encompasses a wide array of films across many years and different national cinemas. It can’t be boiled down to one singular thing. But in the classic Hollywood mode, there are some staples that illustrate the formula. Think The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. These films are genre cornerstones, but looking beyond them, there are some films that excel precisely because of how they simultaneously work within the noir formula and subvert it. And there’s no film that does this better than Nightmare Alley.

The 1947 Edmund Goulding film follows carnival barker Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power), who swindles his way to greatness as a supposed fortune teller but remains haunted by those left in his wake. Through this quintessential rise and fall narrative, the film appeals to certain conventional tropes of film noir.

For starters, Nightmare Alley has some unbeatable broads. Pre-code legend Joan Blondell co-stars as Mademoiselle Zeena, who is in the twilight of her career as a carnie clairvoyant after once having been a top-billed vaudeville act, alongside her alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith). Zeena and Pete had once developed a code for performances that they never revealed until Stan got it out of her and used it to strengthen his own act.

After leaving the carnival, Stan begins performing as The Great Stanton with his new wife, Molly (Coleen Gray), one of the younger circus performers who becomes his assistant in their shows. It’s not long before Stan crosses paths with psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker). The two strike up a deal where she provides him with information about her patients and he uses that information to convince them he can communicate with the dead, for a fee.

Of these three women, the aptly named and seductively clever Lilith falls most in line with the femme fatale role, but all three are more richly complicated than a stock character. Blondell in particular brings a strong amount of depth to Zeena. Although she stays with Pete through a lot of thick and very little thin, she’s far from being a doormat. Blondell’s command of the role imbues Zeena with a sense of nobility. She’s as much a grifter as any other circus fortune teller, but one gets the impression that her goal is always to give people a true performance. They might be getting duped, but they get a hell of a good show out of it.

Molly, a classic ingenue, is in many ways Stan’s moral compass. She’ll conspire with him, but there’s a line that she won’t cross even when he will. She is simultaneously devoted to him and conscious of the limits of what she’ll support. As Stan descends farther, Molly is put to the test, with the film ultimately reminding us of the weight of her tragedy as well as his.

Lilith is, despite all of Stan’s trickery, the most unscrupulous character if only because she never feels remorse for their exploits, while he eventually does. She’s brilliantly devious as Stan’s accomplice-turned-foe. But the strength of her character as a femme fatale is that she doesn’t do anything Stan doesn’t also work to accomplish. Each sees the other as an equal in their commitment to the scheme. She doesn’t drag Stan down or manipulate him, she simply meets him where he desires to be met. That she can take the heat better than he can doesn’t mean she was his downfall. He did it all to himself.

Although all of these women are supporting characters, Nightmare Alley takes time to be invested in their contributions beyond just what they mean to Stan. But make no mistake, the star of this film is the unparalleled Tyrone Power.

After making his name playing swashbucklers, Power wanted a change of pace and requested that Fox buy the rights to William Lindsay Gresham‘s book of the same name so he could star in the adaptation. Power takes to the role of Stan perfectly, balancing all of the grifter’s depravities with sympathy for the follies of blind ambition.

In Power, I see traits of both Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, but his allure is too beguiling to be boiled down to a Venn diagram of sensitivity and masculinity. He’s ruggedly handsome and soulful, but there’s something boyish and playful in the twinkle in his eye. Needless to say, his choice of this as a vehicle was ingenious. He captures Stan with heart but never veers into sentimentality. He can be cruel and cowardly as well as deliriously charming. It’s a powerhouse performance that captures Stan as surely doomed from the start but impossible to not feel for.

Indeed, for this film to work, a stellar central performance was absolutely integral. Power’s subtleties as a performer and the nuances of Stan’s character are necessary because, in this wonderfully intriguing genre, the showmanship of the circus could almost be too on the nose.

Although noir often revolves around crimes and investigations, the genre’s preoccupation with the entertaining allure of a taboo and seedy underbelly is exactly what Stan’s traveling carnival delivers to its patrons. The audience is there to be awed and horrified, to wonder at the splendor of the magic trick while being able to reassure themselves it’s not all real.

Nightmare Alley pushes some limits with references to a “geek show” — essentially an alcoholic or drug addict who runs around the stage eating live chickens, and is compensated with a substance to get their fix in lieu of pay. It’s a horribly exploitative form of entertainment that even characters in the film cite as being under the already low bar of what many carnivals will feature. This is an extreme end of the spectrum, but whether it’s a geek show or a forecast of one’s future, the circus audiences get a taste of something scandalous to remember long after the carnival has pulled out of town.

Indeed, these circus shows, much like the deliciously debaucherous exploits of film noir characters, satisfy a craving for something forbidden. Even while grounded in reality and revealing the secrets behind Stan’s tricks, the rollercoaster ride of the film’s emotional highs and lows complements the thrill of his showmanship and the taboo nature of the subject matter.

Goulding himself is, fittingly, also a bit of a showman. The film has the sensuous shadows and beautifully composed shots that one would expect from a good film noir. But there are some moments that go above and beyond, where a flourish from the director can take your breath away. A shot towards the end pulls back to reveal more of the dark frame around Stan at just the right moment to be in time with the character hitting his lowest point thus far. We see the dark shadows engulf him as if some monstrous creature was swallowing him whole. It is real, fantastical, beautiful, and hideous, all at once.

Nightmare Alley delivers an unforgettable twist on the film noir by not simply transposing stock noir characters and plots onto a carnival setting, but by foregrounding the otherworldly qualities already present in the genre. Goulding’s film spins the classic rise and fall narrative by brilliantly complementing the central character’s plight with a film that is itself scandalous and seductive, taboo and transgressive, and that showcases genre staples while remaining wholly original.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.