Saturday, November 24, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Nightmare Alley (1947)

I watched NIGHTMARE ALLEY for the first time today and found it a real "wow" experience. While I wouldn't precisely say I loved it -- it was too dark for that -- I was intrigued and impressed by a compelling film.

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?

I particularly loved the scene where Molly says farewell to Stan at a train station, which strongly echoed her final scene in her previous film, 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.

2021 Update: NIGHTMARE ALLEY is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.


Blogger Vienna said...

Great review . Must try and see this film

3:52 AM  
Blogger grandoldmovies said...

This is about my fave noir - the film creates a gritty, sleazy atmosphere that stands out. Power supposedly had to fight to make the film at Fox; the studio was reluctant to cast its major star in such an unsympathetic role. Love the details you note about Colleen Gray's acting. She had such a lovely, natural quality onscreen.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I have never been able to find words strong enough to effectively describe to someone just how perfect Tyrone Power's performance is in "Nightmare Alley". It is something they have to experience.

Poor Stanton Carlisle, his biggest fall guy was himself. I'd give Ian Keith marks for being Power's equal in creating a memorable character.

True, it is a tough film, but as you are finding, totally unforgettable.

7:35 AM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

A great movie. I always enjoy movies with a carny setting and this is one of the best. And Tyrone Power is superb (as is Joan Blondell).

4:46 PM  
Blogger A said...

This films is fantastic. Power, Blondell, basically everyone is this film is fantastic. So striking and raw and sleezy, in a good way. I watch this film every time its on. Fox Movie Channel plays it every month or so. I should just go ahead and buy it already.

9:02 PM  
Blogger DorianTB said...

Laura, NIGHTMARE ALLEY left me both shaken and stirred - I think even James Bond would be freaked-out! I'll admit that I used to think Tyrone Power was just a pretty boy, but I changed my tune when I saw him in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, and now that I've seen his searing performance in NIGHTMARE ALLEY, I have a new respect for him (what a shame he died too soon). Heck, the whole cast is terrific; in particular, I can never take my eyes off the endearing, arresting Coleen Gray, and I wish Helen Walker had had a longer career. It's not the easiest picture tp watch, on account of its grim and gritty plot and atmosphere, but I'll never forget it! BRAVA on a superb post!

9:18 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Sounds like this movie has sure made an impression on a lot of us -- I'm still mulling it over two days later! :)

I like that comment, Caftan Woman, about Carlisle's biggest fall guy being himself. So true.

Thank you all for sharing your thoughts on this very interesting movie!

Best wishes,

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Scott MacDonough said...

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I finally was able to see the original NIGHTMARE ALLEY and now I have absolutely no interest in seeing the soon-to-be-released remake with the deadly dull Bradley Cooper and the ridiculously overrated Cate Blanchett. I've always been a Tyrone Power fan, and I've never seen any other actor of any generation give the amazingly hypnotic performance he gives in this incredible movie. Coupled with his inspired work in his previous movie THE RAZOR'S EDGE (my favorite novel brilliantly adapted into a spellbinding cinematic treasure), Edmund Goulding (who directed both of these timeless films) was absolutely spot on when he praised Tyrone Power as "the greatest actor of his generation". His death at the young age of 43 is especially tragic when one considers the scope of the superb performances he would have given in at least the next 25 years!

12:35 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm glad you were able to see the original NIGHTMARE ALLEY, Scott. It's hard to imagine any modern-day cast having the power of the likes of Power, Blondell, Gray, and Walker.

I will always be sad that Tyrone Power left us so soon. My favorite actor.

Best wishes,

11:16 PM  

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