"I can't understand how anybody could get so
"That can happen."
Now there's an interesting word, one that has crept back
into more common usage since the rise of Tarantino and
his ilk, with the term 'film geek' coined with a surprising
degree of pride. But what does it actually mean? My Mac's
handy Dictionary widget gives the following explanations:
unfashionable or socially inept person.
[with adj.] a person with an eccentric devotion to
a particular interest : a computer geek.
carnival performer who does wild or disgusting acts.
that last one? It was new to me. It may be new to you. But
this is the original meaning of the word, and the only one
that counts for anything once you've seen Nightmare
Alley. But more of that later.
does a month go by when I don't at some point thank the
movie gods for film noir. In a time of happy endings,
sickly romances, idiot comedies and dumb-ass
blockbusters, any film that delves into the darker side
of human nature and shows people at their nasty, manipulative
worst, is perversely refreshing. Despite the genre's reputation
for stylised visuals and characters, it's this aspect that,
for my money, makes it a more realistic reflection of the
world at large than even the most down-to-earth modern Hollywood
product (if that's not an oxymoron). But then I'm something
of a cynic, albeit one shaped by experience of the very
attitudes and actions that noir cinema regularly features. Having
gorged on such films in the past, to hold in my hands a
DVD of a film that the pre-publicity has described as "the
grimmest of all film noirs" is something of a pulse
raiser and can't help but fire up my expectations. After watching
it three times, pretty much in a row I might add, my money
is still on the unrelenting fatalism of Double Indemnity,
but Nightmare Alley is only a whisker behind
Power plays Stanton Carlisle, a low level carnival worker
whose duties include assisting mind-reader Zeena Krumbein
and her alcoholic husband Pete with their act. Although
having an affair with Zeena, Stanton actually has the hots
for another carnival girl, Molly, much to the chagrin of
strongman Bruno, who already has dibs on Molly's
youthful beauty. When Stanton learns that Zeena and Pete
used to run a big time mentalist act using a complex word
code, he becomes determination to
discover the code's secret, something Pete is having none
of. But when Pete dies is a tragic mix-up, Stanton learns
the code for himself and begins working with Zeena, and soon sets his sights on higher things. Fate once again takes a hand and Stanton
gets what he is looking for, but success and ambition come at a price.
character of Stanton is key to Nightmare Alley's
substantial noir credentials, an anti-hero who divides his
time between a secret affair with the wife of an alcoholic
but once-great performer, and flagrant flirting with a colleague's girlfriend in what appears to be a deliberate
attempt to wind the man up. Both of these, however, take second place to
his desire for social advancement. Stanton is a con
artist in a world that he later discovers is full of them. Small
scale at first, he rises through the ranks and social strata,
and as the deceptions grow in scale, so do both the financial
rewards and their perceived immorality. As a carnival side
show, Zeena's mind-reading act offers cheap but genuine
thrills for the enjoyment of all and sundry, but by the
time Stanton has hooked up with alluring psychologist Lilith
Ritter, greed and ambition have mutated a parlor trick into
full scale extortion.
A degree of moral counterbalance is provided by the
victim of Stanton's biggest con and the confessions of his own
past exploitation of others, and it's hard not to cheer
for someone able to hoodwink the wealthy fossils drawn to
Stanton's night club act, a working man successfully manipulating
those who cast themselves as his social betters. Similarly,
although Stanton's act is largely regarded as a performance, Lilith's
psychological analysis is socially accepted and expensively bought, despite being the flipside of the very same coin.
There are even parallels in how the two ply their trade,
each adopting a formal theatricality when working their
respective audiences, though the suggestion that Stanton's
skills may be partly genuine gives him, in the
film's eyes, more professional credibility than Lilith.
some elements are inevitably diluted from William
Lindsay Gresham's even darker novel, the writer's Marxist
politics remain clearly and daringly visible in the film's subtext.
Raw ambition and the desire to better your social status,
so often celebrated as a positive driving force of American
capitalism, are here presented as the very thing that strips
Stanton of his moral judgment and ultimately his humanity.
He learns the hard way that no matter how good a con-man he is,
there are people out there who are better at it and more
ruthless than he, and that the simple life of a carnival
performer, ground as it is in a surprisingly moral code,
is more honest than the deceptions practiced
by those in the outside (capitalist) world.
events and even dialogue re-occur throughout the narrative
and reflect the film's concerns with fate, fortune and recurring
destiny. After stepping into shoes that Pete has long since
vacated, Stanton fails to realise that his own future is
set to unfold along similar lines. It's a development predicted
by Zeena and her tarot cards, a practice as hollow
as any carnival con but that here has a degree of narrative
credibility and foreshadows Stanton's generically inevitable
fall. The film's masterstroke is that it saves this for
the final reel and then sends its character into dizzying
freefall towards a studio-enforced ending that nonetheless,
given the cyclic nature of Stanton's fate, is still open
to pessimistic interpretation.
brings me back to the geek. At a time when the Hays code
was clamping down heavily on just what could be shown or
even discussed in American films, the fact that Nightmare
Alley was able to include a character that
had descended to such a level that he would bite the heads
off chickens to earn his room, board and booze is surprising
enough (that this is communicated largely through dialogue and just-off-screen suggestion in no way dilutes it), but to then... no, I've said too much. But the very
thing I can't discuss without revealing what no reviewer
should is exactly what gives this film its justifiably dark
reputation, and what leaves you reeling at the boldness of those
responsible for this extraordinary work.
lit and photographed by Lee Garmes, sharply adapted by Jules
Furthman (whose other credits include The Big Sleep,
To Have and Have Not, Shanghai
Express, Mutiny on the Bounty
and Rio Bravo – need I go on?), moodily
scored by Cyril Mockridge, and directed by Edmund Goulding
as if born to noir film-making (it was his only work in
the genre), the film features a splendid cast on impressive form. Joan Blondell makes for a breezily confident Zeena, Coleen
Gray plays Molly as the film's only true innocent, Helen
Ritter creates in Lilith is a fascinatingly androgynous
femme fatale, and former Shakesperian actor Ian Keith shines as the alcoholic but nostalgic Pete. But the real
honours belong to Tyrone Power as Stanton – instrumental
in getting the film made, he saw it as an opportunity to
broaden his range after years of typecasting as a romantic
lead. It remained his favourite role, but disappointingly
failed to change the course of his career, though through
no fault of his own – the film was poorly promoted by the
studio, who were not prepared for such a darkly told tale,
and a long-standing dispute between the film's producer
and the Fox studio effectively buried the film for decades. But
now it's back and it's lovely, a largely unseen cult film
that has finally emerged from the shadows and set to find
its place in cinema history as a genuine film noir classic.
Oh man, this is how all noir cinema should look on DVD.
Some minor damage, dust spots and grain aside, this is a
fabulous transfer, with the sort of rock-solid blacks and
impeccable contrast that films of this genre demand, and
sharpness and detail that defy the film's age. A superb
sound is Dolby 2.0 mono and free of noise and hiss, with
only the minimal distortion expected with films of this
vintage. The music is surprisingly sturdy.
quick word about the menus – if you're viewing the film
for the first time, do not whatever you do visit the chapter
menu first, as a couple of the chapter names effectively
function as plot spoilers.
The Introduction (9:03) by noir specialist and
author Woody Haut quite nicely sets up the film and provides
a few interesting background details, despite Haut's obvious
on-camera nervousness, which results in a fair amount of
lip-licking and dry-mouth gulps.
(25:29) follows on from the introduction, with Hault providing
plenty of background information on the making of the film,
still a little nervously. There is inevitably some crossover
with the commentary and the accompanying
booklet, but it still makes for interesting listening, the
mid-shot/head shot of Hault broken up by occasional illustrative
stills and posters giving us something to look at.
Commentary by noir specialists
Alain Silver and James Ursini has been transposed from the
Fox region 1 disk and provides a very thorough background
to the making of the film and the layers of meaning to be
found in many scenes, as well as analysis of the characters
and their motivations. They even disagree on a couple of
points, most memorably over the use of electronic music
("That's not electronic, it's low strings").
The Original Trailer (2:25) is
in better shape than I could ever have expected and is a
surprisingly voiceover-free affair, somewhat ramshackle
in structure and a poor sell, with the name of its main
actor, a star of some note at the time, neither spoken nor
splashed on the screen. Actually, nor is the title of the
film. Is this really the original trailer?
original Continuity Script and Music and Sound
Cues are included in PDF format as a DVD-ROM
we have the expected 24 page, handsomely presented booklet,
featuring an essay on the film by Woody Haut entitled Geeks,
Freaks and Rubes and a second Haut piece, Life
Imitates Art imitating Life on the sometimes unfortunate
links between the fate of the movie characters and the lives
of some of those associated with it.
not sod about, Nightmare Alley is a terrific
film noir, a joyously dark story of destructive and ultimately
self-destructive ambition in which just about everyone is
attempting to manipulate others for their own ends. It's
cult status was built in part on its long term unavailability,
but can now continue on the back of the film's cinematic
strengths, which are considerable.
Masters of Cinema label does the film proud, with a superb
transfer and some very worthwhile extras. Noir fans should
run to get their hands on it.