The recent release of Guillermo Del Toro’s remake of Nightmare Alley has renewed interest in this 1947 original. This dark, disturbing yet fascinating film Noir provided handsome Matinee idol Tyrone Power with the darkest role of his career.
Nightmare Alley is back in the news. Guillermo Del Toro is making a new adaptation of the story and Leonardo Di Caprio is negotiating to play the lead role of “The Great Stanton”, immortalized by Tyrone Power in the 1947 version. So this looks like a good time to revisit the 1947 picture directed by Edmond Goulding. i must admit i am not a big fan of Tyrone Power, though i have a soft spot for those technicolor swashbucklers that he starred in the 40’s like Captain from Castile , The Black Swan and The Black Rose etc. From technicolor swashbucklers to a dark Black & White Film Noir-which was what Nightmare Alley was- looks like a giant leap. And it was done at Power’s bidding. he was the biggest star at twentieth century-fox, but he was tired of being a sword and sandals man. He himself bought the rights to the novel by William Lindsay Gresham and set the project in motion. Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck was not amused, but he had to give in tot he whims of his number one star. He was sure that the audience would not accept Power in such a dark character and he was right. The film flopped at the time of the release, but it continues to be a much admired film noir classic.
The film portrays the rise and fall of Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Tyron Power), an, unscrupulous, amoral, carnival barker who becomes a big time night club entertainer\con man\Charlatan who is out to bilk gullible rich folk with his fake metaphysical powers. The film mainly deals with Stan’s relationship with the three woman in his life ; who would turn out to be “The Great Stanton’s” creator , nourisher and destroyer respectively. First is Carnival fake mentalist “Mademoiselle Zeena” (Joan Blondell), the older woman who is seduced by Stan. She has a drunk husband, Pete, who acts as her assistant .She has in her possession an ingenious code which makes it appear that she possesses extraordinary mental powers. Stan accidentally causes the death of Pete, so Zeena grooms Stan to be her assistant and teaches him the code. But Stan betrays her and gets married to a younger girl named Molly. Stan is forced to leave the carnival and he uses zeena’s code to become rich and famous. The Second woman is Molly(Coleen Gray), who falls in love with Stan and marries him. She stays his life partner and professional partner until she cannot tolerate his devious ways anymore .Finally there is psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who provides Stan with her secret records containing the personal information of her clients, all members of the Chicago social elite, that helps Stan con them into believing that he can communicate with their dead kin.But he makes the big mistake of confessing his sins to Lilith, which is also recorded by her and with which she finally destroys him.In short , she is the Femme fatale to Stan’s Noir Hero.
Noir, by its nature, is defined by despair and disillusionment and The moot point of Nightmare Alley is How does a guy become a geek?. its a question posed by Stan at the beginning of the film when he hear the screams of the carnival geek. Geeks perform the most bizarre and grotesque acts at a carnival like biting the heads off live chickens in return for a bottle of alcohol and a place to stay. Stan later rephrases the question; “I can’t understand how anybody could get so low?”. Stan’s mission in life is to get as far away from the carnival and from being a geek, but little does he know that he himself is one , albeit hidden inside the cool, smooth talking, seductive exterior of Clairvoyant. It would just take a series of tragic events to bring forth the geek inside him (or anyone), which is what happens by the end of the film. By then both Stan and the audience gets the answer to his earlier question(s).
Stan sets up his Noir hero credentials at the beginning of the film with a few declarative statements about himself , such as
I can’t help it , but i can think of only myself
I love it because i am on the inside
The second statement meaning that he is glad that he is the guy behind the curtain , who is in on the trick by which the gullible masses are fooled. He really enjoys doing it and it was what he wants to do for the rest of his life. Edmond Goulding who directed this film usually makes classy dramas like the all star cast The Grand Hotel. But he does a great job here. Within the first fifteen minutes, he sets up the film superbly. We see Stan walking in from the outside,getting backstage, putting on the costumes, then coming out on the stage , brandishing his gift with words, collecting the inquisitive cards from the audience and setting up the stage for Zeena’s performance. We see how neatly Zeena accomplishes her trick and the gullible masses are fooled. The film portrays a bleak and despairing vision of life at a carnival as well as life as a carnival; with human beings as carnies, tricking one another for a living with the Geek being the lowest form of human. This can be read analogous to the Shakespearean quote of All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
The film is unsparing in the treatment of everything it considers one or other form of Carnival trickery. The revered profession of Psychology is depicted as an elaborate scam, more sophisticated, if no less manipulative, than carnival showmanship. Lilith , the psychologist, is portrayed a someone who is more cold blooded and even more dangerous than Stanton, , mainly because she has the ability to control her inner geek , while Stanton cannot and thus he becomes an object of some sympathy at the end. Then there is the treatment of Religion. In a film were the hero’s main profession is playing god , it goes without saying that religion is also shown as a weapon to scam the people .Though keeping in with the times the film was made, some concessions are granted, like the portrayal of Stan’s downfall.The moment things fall apart for Stanton is when Molly can’t go through with deceiving a wealthy client (Taylor Holmes) about presenting herself as the image of his deceased loved one. She has an attack of conscience and turns away from Stanton’s evil plan. Stan is exposed as a fraud and he has no other option other than to give up his profession and leave town. But once he is cheated out of his money by Lilith, he simply falls apart. He succumbs to alcohol and finally becomes a geek in a carnival to stay alive. In the end he does get the answer to his earlier Question; A man gets so low because he reached too high.
Stan’s physical impersonation of the geek at the end is a metaphor for his moral degradation. Though this downfall is given the structure of a morality tale, the fact is that Stan is quite an amoral guy to begin with. It’s hardly the case of the corruption of a moral person. Stan becomes more human when he turns into a geek . The final image of him in the arms of Molly, who swears to nourish him back to his former self, is the only time when we root for Stan in the entire film. It’s also interesting to note that the only thing the film places some amount of faith; is in Zeena’s Egyptian tarot deck that predicts the death of her husband as well as the tragic fate of Stanton accurately.
Though Film Noirs of the time where considered B movies made on a low budget, this film was an A list production with a bigger budget and prestigious technicians working on it. Apart from Goulding directing,The cameraman was Lee Garmes, who photographed some of the great Films of Joseph Von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich and he brings his skill with glittering light and deep shadows. The screenplay is by Jules Furthman who has written some of the great Howard Hawks pictures. And Of course the film had one of the most popular matinee idols of the time in the film. Though he is playing a dark character here, Power brings his full romantic\swashbuckler charm, flamboyance and athleticism to the role. Stan is a character who seduces people with his words and his actions and his matinee idol good looks make him perfect for the role. This is one of those cases where a lead star’s attempt at a vanity project paid off handsomely and his choice of an off beat role suited him perfectly and above all, he pulled it off magnificently. Tyrone Power’s performance in this film is undoubtedly the best of his career.
It will be interesting to see what Del Toro does with this material. The film was a product of its times. the bleak , paranoid environment of world war II and its aftermath that brought forth the film noir. Del Toro is someone who works on getting the visual aesthetics of a picture absolutely right. He usually is obsessed with creatures , monsters and ghosts so it will be in his comfort zone to tackle a story about a Charlatan. And as one among six people who actually liked Crimson Peak and was bowled over by the eye candy (what Del Toro refers to as Eye protein) it offered with sumptuous use of color and architecture, i hope he is able to pull it off. Then again, Del Toro is notorious for attaching himself to too many projects and not making any of them. so in the end he may not make it at all and the original would remain the only version of the story.