Director Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel ‘32, Dark Victory ‘39) and Power were coming off the box office success of The Razor’s Edge in 1946, but Power wanted to move into roles that ignored his good looks and allowed him to get inside a character, flaws and all. Zanuck’s reluctance was due in large part to protect the #1 star at the studio, but when Power bought him the 1946 novel that the film is based on, he agreed to produce it provided he could re-pair him with Goulding.
Set in the very American milieu of the travelling carnival, complete with fortune tellers, strongmen and freak shows, Nightmare Alley draws parallels between con artists and psychologists, superstition and religion, and deception and exploitation. It’s a rich tapestry for a film hemmed in by the restrictive Production Code of the late 1940’s. While the film did temper quite a few of the more graphic and disturbing elements of William Lindsay Gresham’s bestseller, Goulding’s biographer Matthew Kennedy notes that “Production Code restrictions submerged blatant images and made Nightmare Alley more, not less, kinky by suggestion” (Kennedy, p.246). We don’t see the geek bite the head off a live chicken, but we hear the audience gasps & see their horrified faces. We understand that Stan (Power) & Molly (Gray) have sex the night first kiss, but it’s never mentioned directly and we’re only left to wonder, although the handprint stitching across the breasts of Molly’s costume give a clue and a reminder. Similarly, we never know the tragedy that befell the ultimate dupe, Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), but it drives him to bow down at the feet of Stan praying for forgiveness. (The book makes it more or less clear that his girlfriend died of complications from a back alley abortion). As is the case in the best films made during the Production Code years (1934-~1958), Nightmare Alley assumes smart audiences will put the implied pieces together, the implications will go right over stupid and moralistic viewers’ heads and the censors will fall into the latter camp more often than the former.
Goulding and screenwriter Jules Furthman use foreshadowing and mirroring throughout the film to indicate the projection of the main characters. Phony mentalist Zeena (Blondell) uses a drunken sidekick to help dupe carnival rubes, but it’s revealed Pete (Keith) used to be a master before he fell into the bottle. Zeena and Pete are mirrored by Stan and Molly in their rise and fall. Stan shows an early fascination with the geek, questioning how a man could fall so low, before later admitting he was born for it himself. Pete even commits to Stan that he has everything he used to have. The greatest scene of mirroring Stan and Pete occurs when Pete, in a rare moment of sobriety dupes Stan with his long-remembered spiel to draw in marks to his con. Later, Stan recites the exact same speech with equal results. They have become one another.
Tyrone Power’s Stan is a richly drawn character unlike most any he played in his career. A hollow shell of narcissism, Stan admits he only thinks about himself, seemingly amazing himself with the admission. At one point he also verbalizes his maniacal high his performances give him, “It gives you kind of a superior feeling-as if you were on the inside and everyone else is on the outside-looking in.” Power’s amazing gift for overwhelmingly sincere sounding charm belies Stan’s self-serving and manipulative ways. He uses Zeena to gain access to “the code,” coolly implying the potential for a sexual relationship as he imagines a future while Pete sleeps off a bender only feet away. While Zeena is a world-weary pro, she still falls prey to Stan’s charm, which allows him to seduce the innocent and sweet natured Molly, drawing her into his web of deceit as well. Throughout the film Goulding & Furthman challenge the viewer to turn on Stan, but Power’s presentation of Stan’s oily charm and one-dimensional goals only serve to heighten the impact of the third act.
Nightmare Alley is different from every Film Noir I’ve ever seen, but it is Noir to its core. While there is not the traditional Femme Fatale, Stan could arguably be called an Homme Fatale for his mistreatment and exploitation of the women in the film. There are no police or private detectives; no voice over or flashbacks, all typical of Noir, but there is the same dread throughout that often hangs in the air of the best Films Noir. Look particularly at the nighttime scenes on the carnival grounds. Cinematographer Lee Garmes infuses the light not with the harsh pools & pitch black typical of Noir, but creates a dreamlike feeling, as if a mist hangs in the air and darkness is only partially hiding the danger or deception. Of course, the exploitation of women, the element of criminality and the mood of the film flash Film Noir like a neon beacon, so Nightmare Alley points to a more sophisticated and developed sense of the Noir aesthetic than the typical picture of the era.
As noted, Fox chief Darryl F. Zannuck was no fan of the project, so when the film was released into theaters it was with little fanfare and a non-existent marketing campaign. Reviews were generally positive, mostly focusing on the depth of Power’s performance, but the film was pulled after a short run and deemed a failure; Zannuck’s self-fulfilling prophecy. Not until ten years later did the film begin to attract attention and was looked at as a minor classic. The daring subject matter, the manner in which it was presented and the overwhelmingly cynical nature of the storytelling lift Nightmare Alley into a class of its own among post-WWII films in general and Film Noir in particular. It may not be for everyone, but Nightmare Alley is certainly worth seeing for its twist on good and evil, perception and deception & of course, human nature, in all itys deeply twisted machinations.
Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory: Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy. Matthew Kennedy. The University of Wisconsin Press. 2004.
Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir. Eddie Muller. Harper Collins. 2001.
Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. Revised & Expanded Edition. Eddie Muller. Running Press. 2021.