Review: Nightmare Alley (1947)

>> Tuesday, December 21, 2010

USA/B&W-110m./Dir: Edmund Goulding/Wr: Jules Furthman/Cast: Tyrone Power (Stanton Carlisle), Joan Blondell (Zeena Krumbein), Coleen Gray (Molly), Helen Walker (Lilith Ritter), Mike Mazurki (Bruno), Ian Keith (Pete Krumbein) Taylor Holmes (Ezra Grindle)

“How do ya get a guy to be a geek?” grifter Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Tyrone Power) wonders at the beginning of 1947’s ultra-cynical film noir, Nightmare Alley. He’s just witnessed the carnival wild man eat live chickens, and he can’t fathom how a guy could get so low. The answer, of course, is booze. The geek is a bottle-a-day drunk who will do anything for his liquor. In posing the question, Stan doesn’t realize he’s just a misstep or two away from being a rum dumb sideshow attraction himself. Nightmare Alley provides the dark, voyeuristic pleasure of watching Stanton slide inexorably toward that fate.

Like many noir protagonists, Stanton Carlisle is a “Class-A” heal. He begins as a barker at a small-time carnival, assisting Zeena (Joan Blondell), a middle-aged mind reader, and her whiskey-sodden partner, Pete (Ian Keith). Trying to worm his way into becoming a headliner in the act, Stanton decides to assist Pete in drinking himself to death. The plan works a little too well when Stanton accidentally gives Pete a bottle of wood alcohol instead of moonshine. When Pete dies of alcohol poisoning, Zeena teaches Stan the word code that is the key to the mentalist act. Soon after, Stan dumps Zeena and leaves the carnival with a younger beauty (Coleen Gray). Together they take the act to the nightclub circuit, where Stan finds big money and fame as “The Great Stanton.” After such a meteoric rise, a big descent is sure to follow, with only alcohol to cushion the fall.

Fed up with playing nice-guy romantic leads and swashbuckling heroes, Tyrone Power purchased the rights to William Gresham's novel, Nightmare Alley, in order to convince the brass at 20th Century Fox to let him play the unsavory lead. Although hesitant to let their biggest star sully his reputation, the studio bosses reluctantly relented. The resulting film and Power’s performance were both deliciously dark triumphs. The pretty-boy star would never be better than as “The Great Stanton,” and the pitch black film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without such a magnetic star at its center.

The supporting cast is also outstanding. Power is given fine support by his three leading ladies--Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, and Helen Walker. Character actors Mike Mazurki, Taylor Holmes, and especially Ian Keith (in a scene-stealing turn as the drunkard, Pete) also add color to the proceedings.

While the film sags a bit about three-quarters in and the story has occasional lapses in logic (such as taking tarot card readings seriously while preaching that mysticism is for suckers), these are minor quibbles compared with the overall effect conveyed by this chillingly dark tale of deceit and alcoholism. Nightmare Alley is a soused cinema “must see.”

Drinks Consumed--Rye whiskey, moonshine, wood alcohol, beer, and gin

Intoxicating Effects--Slurring, staggering, stumbling, harmonizing, the giggles, hangover, the shakes, delirium tremens, public disturbance, physical violence, and death

Potent Quotables--STAN: Well, you’re a fine one--running off in the middle of the show. Zeena was sore.
PETE: I couldn’t help it. She’s got me on a diet--one shot a day.
STAN: You seem to be doin’ all right.
PETE: No. Just a sip here and there. Zeena’s tipped everybody off.

Video Availability--Nightmare Alley (Fox Film Noir) DVD

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Booze darkened many noirs prior to Nightmare Alley, including the previous year’s Black Angel.

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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