The movie was so very different that I'm still mulling it over and processing my reactions to it a few hours later. That kind of thought-provoking impact strikes me as one of the marks of a good film.
Tyrone Power shows he was much more than a handsome face, playing an ambitious carnival worker, Stan, who ultimately becomes a top attraction as a "mentalist" in Chicago nightclubs, only to plunge to the depths of destruction; longtime guilt over his role in the death of another carnival employee (Ian Keith) combined with a failed plot to bilk a multimillionaire send him over the edge into an alcoholic nightmare.
I don't know what magic makeup artist Ben Nye worked, but by the final scenes even Stan's eyes have changed, to the point that his former coworkers no longer recognize him; combined with Power's acting, the effect is stunning. One of the interesting things about the film is that although Stan is a user and grifter, the viewer can't help feeling a certain sympathy for him, particularly in the final scenes.
The grungy carnival atmosphere is quite unique for a '40s film, focusing on low types who basically drink and/or cheat their way through life. Stan being forced into a shotgun marriage with fellow carny Molly (Coleen Gray) was certainly different as well.
There's a trio of wonderful actresses in NIGHTMARE ALLEY. I've previously written of my admiration for Coleen Gray, and I thought she was wonderful in this as well, especially in the early carnival scenes. I was particularly struck by the natural way she moved in the scene which introduces her, swinging off the truck, grabbing her shoes, and drinking a soda pop. There's simply something a little unusual about her screen persona that's quite arresting. And speaking of unusual, what exactly was her relationship with the much older Bruno (Mike Mazurki), anyway?
KISS OF DEATH (1947). In each scene the leading man is sending her away in an attempt to save her from the fate each man knows will soon catch up with him. Both scenes are achingly romantic, and in the case of NIGHTMARE ALLEY this scene may be the only true indication that Stan really has deep feelings for Molly. Previously, he has used her repeatedly as the means to various ends.
Joan Blondell plays the older woman who teaches Stan all he needs to be a successful entertainer, only to be thrown over for a younger partner, the lovely Molly. Blondell, long known as a comedienne, had a strong dramatic impact in a couple films of the mid to late '40s, including this film and her outstanding role as Aunt Sissy in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945).
Helen Walker is marvelous as a psychologist who's even more devious than Stan. Her final scene, in which she tops shorting Stan of ill-gotten funds by convincing him he's going crazy, was quite brilliant. As he hears police sirens wail, she stares him straight in the eye and claims she doesn't hear them. Walker is simply terrific. Her later noir titles included IMPACT (1949) and THE BIG COMBO (1955), both excellent films. It's a shame her career was rather short, as she was a most interesting actress.
Edmund Goulding, who had recently directed Power in his first postwar film, THE RAZOR'S EDGE (1946), also directed NIGHTMARE ALLEY.
The screenplay by Jules Furthman was based on a novel by William Gresham. The gritty, flat-looking photography was by the great Lee Garmes. The running time is 110 minutes.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY is available on DVD as No. 6 in the Fox Film Noir series. Extras include a commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini.
Update: A Visit With Coleen Gray and Laura's Miscellaneous Musings in the Dark Pages.