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Mister, I was made for it
A region 2 DVD review of NIGHTMARE ALLEY by Slarek
 
Stanton: "I can't understand how anybody could get so low."
Zeena: "That can happen."

 

Geek. 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:

    1. An unfashionable or socially inept person.
      [with adj.] a person with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest : a computer geek.
    2. A carnival performer who does wild or disgusting acts.

Get 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.

Rarely 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 it.

Tyrone 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.

The 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.

Although 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.

Themes, 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.

Which 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.

Gorgeously 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.

sound and vision

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 job.

The 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.

A 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.

extra features

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.

Background (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.

The 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?

The original Continuity Script and Music and Sound Cues are included in PDF format as a DVD-ROM feature.

Finally 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.

summary

Let's 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.

Eureka's 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.

Nightmare Alley

USA 1947
111 mins
director
Edmund Goulding
starring
Tyrone Power
Joan Blondell
Coleen Gray
Helen Walker
Taylor Holmes
Mike Mazurki
Ian Keith

DVD details
region 2
video
1.33:1
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hard of hearing
extras
Commentary
Introduction
Background
Trailer
Continuity script and sound and music cues
Booklet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
review posted
15 November 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews