What is it: One of the classic film noirs, 1947’s Nightmare Alley stars Tyrone Power in a dark and perverse tale of power corrupting absolutely. Power is Stan Carlisle, a charming carnival worker with big dreams and bigger ambition. Stan works his way into the act of carnival mind-reader Zeena, then steals her act and uses it to become a nightclub star, fleecing his way to bigger and bigger pockets. He takes off with chipper carnival sidekick Molly as his assistant, but soon falls into the web of a canny psychologist (a stunningly cold Helen Walker) who’s even better at manipulation than he is. Stan’s career soon crumbles into a nightmare of alcoholism and despair.
Why I never saw it: Nightmare Alley was a passion project for Power, who wanted to show his range after making his name in swashbuckling heroic roles. Stan is a helluva role, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing how morally flexible he is, discarding old friends at the drop of a hat in his lust for fame. Like the old spiritualists, he preys on the needs of lonely people and claims to see “spirits.” Of course, the bold and daring Nightmare Alley was a flop at the time for audiences who found it too dark and unsparing, and it sank into obscurity. Thankfully, an excellent new restoration by the Criterion Collection puts it into the canon where it belongs. At the very start of the film, young Stan is disgusted by the carnival “geek,” a sideshow attraction played by a drunken lush who’s somehow less than human who entertains the crowd by biting the head off of live chickens. “How can a guy get so low?” Stan wonders. But by the end of the movie, a crushed, alcoholic Stan is well along on the same dark road. The movie’s original pitch-black ending was lightened to allow a happy romantic reunion, but it’s still doused in sorrow – there’s no going back when you’ve fallen this far.
Does it measure up to its rep? One of those hidden gems that film noir is full of, Nightmare Alley is far more appreciated now than it was back in the day. In fact, Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro is prepping a remake of it starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, so expect the original to get even more attention soon. I’d definitely put it in the upper tier of noirs I’ve seen. There’s a masochistic air to Nightmare Alley, which has just enough dark humour and strong performances to keep it from being a mawkish morality tale. Power is particularly devastating in it, with a layered performance taking him from confident striver to national success to the very bottom of the heap, an unrecognizable wreck in the final scene. Sadly, Power would die shockingly young of a sudden heart attack at only age 44. But with classics like this, The Mark Of Zorro, Witness For The Prosecution and others, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars left a sizeable legacy to enjoy today. Nightmare Alley was his favorite film.
Worth seeing? I love a good film noir, and this one stands up with other genre classics like Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly and Touch of Evil. Embrace the darkness behind the carnival midway lights, and take a trip to Nightmare Alley. It’ll haunt you.