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Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley(1947)

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"How can a guy get so low?," one fellow asks of Tyrone Power's defeated protagonist in the elusive 1947 carny-noir drama Nightmare Alley . "He reached too high," another character shoots back in response. To be more specific, he gets so low because he's too busy hustling people to have any sympathy for anyone else. He doesn't sympathize with others, he smugly pities them. It's in this hubris that Nightmare Alley , which skipped the VHS era entirely, finds its noir heart of darkness. Like Sweet Smell of Success, this is not a conventional noir of greed, crime and lust. All of those elements are here to some degree, as well as the murky visual swaths we expect from noir, but not in as much quantity as arrogance and cold-heartedness. They're what drag Power's "hero" down to the lower depths.

In the hunky leading man's best role, Power plays Stanton "Stan" Carlisle, a young buck just started with a traveling carnival as the movie opens. He's delivering the spiels for psychic Zeena (Joan Blondell), who's aided in the act by her unseen partner Pete (Ian Keith). Pete's drinking has made him unfit to work in front of an audience, and was the problem that kicked his and Zeena's headlining vaudeville act down to carnivals. Stan is jockeying to take his place, already discreetly replacing Pete in Zeena's bed and yearning to be trusted with the secret verbal code Zeena and Pete used during their earlier, more lucrative act. When Pete's drinking takes him out of the act entirely, Stan gets the prized code from Zeena and, coincidentally or not, he's soon moved on from her to shapely circus girl Molly (Coleen Gray of Kansas City Confidential and The Killing). It's Stan and Molly who take the act to Chicago nightclubs, where Stan is a huge hit and falls in with an ethically-challenged psychologist to the rich (Helen Walker), who becomes his partner in a scheme to bilk the wealthy through spiritualism.

Stan gets off on putting things over on people, whether it's getting the code from Zeena, bamboozling audiences or being a fake medium who lets high-society folks think they're communicating with the departed. One of the things that makes him so interesting is that he's not such a total heel that he's only into conniving people. For instance, he genuinely likes Zeena and she likes him, so it's not as if he befriended her only to get her code. And, despite the privileged information shrink Lilith is feeding him, Stan is not without some sort of unusual mental talent. In one of the best scenes, he cools off a local-yokel sheriff looking to close the carnival by giving him a "cold reading" that nearly reduces the lawman to tears. These mixed motives and complex circumstances allow Stan to delude himself about his moral shortcomings and rationalize his schemes. By the last half-hour, Stan is fleecing money from the rich to build a "tabernacle," and apparently believing his own spiel. His come-uppance arrives fast and hard, leading to the alcoholism that destroyed Pete and the desperation and loss of self-respect Stan saw in the lowly carnival geek during the movie's first scenes.

The notion of the sideshow as a sort of pressure-cooker microcosm of larger society makes Edmund Goulding's movie a rare, post-1935 cousin to many of the silent movies of Lon Chaney (like The Unknown) and of The Unknown director Tod Browning's post-Chaney Freaks. Movies have rarely explored the dark side of human nature as Chaney and Browning did, especially after the production code was tightened in 1934 (though, as in Browning's later movie, the sideshow community is portrayed as supportive of its own). But with its undercurrent of sex - voluptuous Blondell, fresh-faced Gray and more tightly-wrapped Walker are all lookers - its dog-eat-dog climate and its precipitous rise and fall, Nightmare Alley heightens reality to sometimes chilling effect.

Nightmare Alley is the latest in the Fox Film Noir DVD series to feature audio commentary by the able team of authors James Ursini and Alain Silver. These guys know their noir, and they touch upon such topics as the reason for the movie's scarcity after its original release (a legal scuffle between Twentieth Century-Fox and producer George Jessel - yes, the same George Jessel who was a frequent Merv Griffin Show guest back in the 1970s), Power's role as the driving force behind getting the movie made and the movie's relation to William Lindsay Gresham's novel. The commentators fill in many details, though I don't know why they think Power, who was certainly not as young as Stan is meant to be, was older than Blondell.

For more information about Nightmare Alley , visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Nightmare Alley, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman