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Nightmare Alley is the sordid tale of a conniving young man who, in the words of one of the film's supporting characters, ends up low because he aimed so high. Drifter Tyrone Power sweet-talks his way into a job as barker for a rundown carnival. He is fascinated by an illegal side-show attraction called "The Geek," a near-lunatic who bites the heads off live chickens and then is "paid off" with a cheap bottle of rotgut and a warm place to sleep it off. Otherwise, Power's attention is focussed on a beautiful if slightly ...

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Apr 3, 2017

The Great Stanton

"Nightmare Alley" tells the story of tawdry life in an old carnival sideshow and of an ambitious carnival huckster. The story was first a book, "Nightmare Alley" written in 1946 by William Lindsay Gresham. It was a best-seller in its day, fell into obscurity, and later was revived through publication in the Library of America's volume of noir novels from the 1930s and 1940s and a separate reissue in the New York Review of Books Classics Series.

The film of "Nightmare Alley" went through a similar cycle. It came out in 1947 with fanfare, a large budget, famous actors, and so-so reviews. The film fell into obscurity, was unavailable for many years, and then was revived at about the same time as Gresham's novel. It now has the deserved status of a classic of film noir. I read and reviewed the book in 2012 but have just seen the film for the first time.

Directed by Edmund Golding, "Nightmare Alley" starred Tyrone Power as the carny and fake spiritualist Stanton Carlisle. Power was looking to expand his roles, and he did. The film features strong roles and performances from three different women, two of whom Stanton used and one of whom used him. Joan Blondell played a middle-age medium, Zeena, who worked for the carnival after having much better days in Vaudeville. Stanton takes advantage of her to learn the spiritualist game and subsequently plays it to the hilt. Colleen Gray plays Stanton's wife, Molly. She began as a carnival stripper and "electric girl" who supposedly takes jolts of electricity and emerges unscathed. Helen Walker plays Lilith Ritter, a Freudian therapist, femme fatale, and villain who finally beats Stanton at his own game.

The strongest scenes are those of the nature of carnival sideshow life at the beginning and end of the movie. The young, ill-educated, and ambitious Stanton rises from a sleight of hand performer to Zeena's assistant to become a gifted quack spiritualist on his own. In the process, he causes the death of Zeena's alcoholic husband, which in the film appears to be accidental. Stanton rises to the world of Chicago nightclub and then begins to prey on the gullible and guilty rich where he almost succeeds. With his failure and growing alcoholism, Stanton returns to the carnival where he gets a job as the "geek" - the lowest of the low in the sideshow hierarchy. (Even as I wrote this review, I received an email offering me the opportunity to meet up with fellow "geeks" -- the meaning of the word has changed radically since the 1940s).

"Nightmare Alley" was a shocking film for its day and still can be disturbing to see. The film was softened slightly from Gresham's book. Both the film and the book can be viewed as a story of the poor and uneducated pursuing the dream of material success with vicious results. In his book, "The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir", film scholar Foster Hirsch describes Stanton's rise and fall as a "pop version of the Faust legend". (p. 193) Hirsch writes (Id.) that Stanton is a "down-and-out opportunist who fakes mental powers in order to fleece millionaires. Trying to control others, he is himself controlled by a nagging sense of guilt that gradually overwhelms him. Descending lower and lower in self-esteem, he ends up a geek in a circus, his mad quest for control having removed him from any connections to the normal world."

I enjoyed reading Gresham's book a few years ago, and I particularly enjoyed thinking about it again and seeing this film version of "Nightmare Alley". The film is now readily and reasonably accessible. It is a must-see for those interested in noir film and noir literature.

Robin Friedman

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