Stanton Carlisle is an ambitious carnie who plays scams alongside phony mentalist Zeena and her alcoholic husband Pete, working the crowd as Zeena pretends to read their minds. But Stan has no intention of staying with the carnival; he has his heart set on an upscale night club act.
Tyrone Power ... Stanton 'Stan' Carlisle
Joan Blondell ... Zeena Krumbein
Coleen Gray ... Molly
Helen Walker ... Lilith Ritter
Taylor Holmes ... Ezra Grindle
Mike Mazurki ... Bruno
Ian Keith ... Pete Krumbein
Tryone Power gave one of his finest performances in "Nightmare Alley." His off-beat role highlighted a strange and intriguing tale, and was a role which he reportedly fought hard to get, upon his return to film work following military duty.
Power proved he was capable of much more demanding parts than those normally given him. On screen most of the time, he displayed a flair for sound characterization and nuance, being endowed with an unusually fine speaking voice and diction.
Lee Garmes' cinematography and Thomas Little's set decoration are notable here, and the entire cast works in fine ensemble fashion. Only some plot details may seem a little obvious and predictable. That's probably because "Nightmare Alley" details have been copied numerous times by other film makers and, as a result, we're much more savvy now than 1947 audiences.
It was a particular treat to have an opportunity to see this film last week on a film society series in a beautiful 35mm print. The showing also reminded viewers how beautiful and effective black and white productions are, and how much they're missed.
This anomalous drama, light years ahead of its time in 1947, is set in a rustic time and place of American history. This is the Carnivals that once traveled from town to town where for a couple of hours the tedious routine of hard working people of the small towns and farms across the land could be shattered as a result of having their minds stretched by bizarre sideshows and their pockets emptied with fixed games of chance favoring the establishment.
By 1947 Tyrone Power, once considered one of the handsomest young men in the picture business, had established himself as one of Hollywood's leading stars. However his career was now on the downhill side of the climb. Thus, he needed a shot-in-the-arm powerful role. In this extraordinary concept and novel to movie story of human karma he found it. The nomenclature of Geek had a far different denotation than it does today. Here we get a front seat look at the full impact of its original meaning. Nightmare Alley is the true career showcase for Power's range as an actor. He is superb in this unforgettable portrayal.
A tense film-noir melodrama that typically hovers between A-film status with Tyrone Power, a major star, some top-writers and an A-list director, but it has a very B-movie feel to it, mostly because of the film's unusual characterizations, the setting with the sideshow-artists and its subsequent reluctant release by 20th-century Fox. Due to these related rights issues the film was long unseen, and quickly assumed cult-status that lasted for a long time, but since its DVD-release, this film came out of obscurity and was generally received as a very fine and unusual noir-classic.
Tyrone Power is very impressive as Stanton Carlisle, a sideshow hustler who gets a menial job with a cheap carnival and becomes fascinated with a mind-reading act performed by Pete and Zeena (Ian Keith and Joan Blondell). Knowing a good con when he sees one, he learns the tricks of the mind-reading act from Zeena, and seduces her into recreating with him a more spectacular version of the act which relies on a secret word code which enables the spiritualist to discern the questions Carlisle has gathered from patrons in the audience. But soon, Molly (a drop-dead gorgeous Coleen Gray!), a pretty sideshow artist, falls for Carlisle, who is forced by the other Carnival people to marry the girl, and they move to Chicago. Soon, they both start a duo, successful club artist act, reading the minds of upper-class Chiacgo society. One night, a visiting psychologist, Lilith Walker (Helen Walker) is fascinated by Carlisle, and agrees to gives him confidential information about her wealthy clients in return for a substantial cut of the take. Molly, however, finds it increasingly hard to bilk people, and Lilith discovers some damning information about Carlisle form Zeena.
Many of the plot twists are a bit strained and not very credible, and the ultimate downfall of Carlisle seems a bit too far-fetched and extreme to me, but the atmosphere, the crisp photography by Lee Garmes and the acting are all of such high standards, it hardly matters. This was very much Tyrone Power's project, as he wanted to shed his image as just the handsome Saturday matinée-idol, and really wanted to embark on some more ambitious projects in which he could show his talents as a character actor. With this film, he more than proved his capabilities. This is perfect gritty, hard-edged noir, that I can only recommend.
* The telephone numbers of the Helen Walker character, Consulting Psychologist Lilith Ritter, are STAte 9862 (for her Office in the Lakeshore Building) and ROGrs Pk 8685 (for her Residence in the Belmont Apartments), both adjacent to the Lake Michigan waterfront on the near north side of Chicago.