Nightmare Alley is a harrowing tale of manipulation and degradation. It’s a journey through a night-lit carnival world in which everyone is out for themselves and no one cares who they chew up and spit out if it means climbing one more rung on the ladder.
It was Tyrone Power’s second film directed by Edmund Goulding, and it’s miles ahead of their first collaboration, The Razor’s Edge (1946).
While The Razor’s Edge was more acclaimed at the time of its release — four Oscar nominations and one win — it’s aged poorly, and the Eastern mysticism at its center is supposed to be profound but is really just high-minded hokum.
Power made The Razor’s Edge with Goulding as a deliberate attempt to break out of the mold he’d been cast in as a handsome swashbuckler with a limited range. His performance wasn’t bad, but at times it seemed forced.
In Nightmare Alley, however, he completely loses himself in his character. His performance as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle — a grasping, duplicitous carny who graduates to tony nightclub performances and fleecing the wealthy — is so natural that I think someone who’d never heard of Tyrone Power before seeing Nightmare Alley would never guess that he wasn’t always seen as a serious actor.
Stan is one of the most memorable film characters I’ve seen in a long time. He’s a drifter who joins a carnival and attaches himself to an aging mentalist named Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her husband, broken-down alcoholic Pete (Ian Keith), then throws both of them aside when he’s learned all he can from them.
He takes up with Molly (played by the stunningly beautiful Coleen Gray), much to the dismay of her boyfriend, the brutish, simple-minded carnival strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki). Using the techniques he learned from Pete and Zeena for cold reading a subject and conveying information through a spoken code, he and Molly take their mind-reading act to posh nightclubs, where they’re a sensation. Stan is more than just a quick study. He has an innate ability to see through people and glean their pasts, their innermost desires, and their secrets. The fact that he uses his talents to take people’s money doesn’t bother him, but it bothers Molly, who’s the only character in the film who’s essentially good and decent.
I love the scene in which Stan breaks down and finally uses the oldest trick in the book on Molly. He admits he’s a bad person and a hustler, but that he’s never lied to her. He may have used everyone else in his life, but he’s never used her.
This is, of course, also a lie, which becomes clear when he tosses Molly aside for Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), consulting psychologist to Chicago’s upper crust, and uses Lilith’s knowledge of the intimate details of the lives of the wealthy to take them for all they’re worth.
While The Razor’s Edge was about Power’s character’s spiritual awakening, Nightmare Alley is about his character’s use of spiritual tropes to lie, cheat, and steal. Maybe it’s just the cynical age in which we live, but I thought that The Razor’s Edge came off as disingenuous, while Nightmare Alley was utterly convincing.
Nightmare Alley is based on the best-selling novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Certain aspects of the novel had to be sanitized for the film version, but it’s still a kick to the stomach. Its story of degradation is so powerfully told that there are many people who saw the film a long time ago and claim that there was a horrifying scene that was deleted for the DVD release. The scene they remember never existed (even in the novel), but it’s easy to see why they think they saw it. Like Psycho (1960) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Nightmare Alley uses the power of suggestion to make you remember horrifying things that you never actually see. It’s a great film, and one that will stay with you a long time after the credits have rolled.
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