Twentieth Century Fox, 111m 39s
The social spectrum of the film noir discloses uncomfortable truths about American society, the sort of reporting many of us would rather not encounter. In social terms, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is one of the most unequivocally American of all film noirs, its nightmare forcefully embedded in long-held American sensibilities and ideals. Hollywood likes to memorialize human perseverance stories, but this noir tour de force serves as a tale of caution about a man who "reached too high," the square-jawed hero gone rogue. An aggressive man armed with good looks and an inspired idea rises to the top of his trade, then falls to a place far lower than his humble beginnings. His unenviable career trajectory acknowledges a grim reality of American upward mobility. Though a capitalist system makes uncapped riches possible, this film noir suggests to reach beyond one's place is an exercise in futility.
Set in the heartland of the US, NIGHTMARE ALLEY is constructed around the history that binds Zeena Krumbein (Joan Blondell) and Pete Krumbein (Ian Keith), a married couple and once top-billed vaudeville act thanks to an arcane code known only to them. Thanks to the complexity of that code, Zeena appeared to possess inexplicable powers as a seeress. These days Zeena and Pete perform a diluted version of their act in a carnival sideshow, with Pete barely functional due to chronic alcoholism. Despite his shaky condition, Zeena remains intensely loyal to her husband, at least in a caretaker sense. Our lead protagonist is a noir survivor named Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power), a sycophantically charming but always covetous charlatan. While Zeena and Pete have accepted their best days are behind them, Stan hopes his time has yet to come. His talents all involve the manipulation of anyone standing in front of him, whether they are coworkers, audiences or even his wife.
A selfish personality may not make for good company at the family dinner table or a company event, but that type of individual sometimes thrives in our free-market economic system. The ideological challenges and thematic oppositions of capitalism permeate film noir time and again, with the genre serving as clearinghouse for the inherent flaws of private enterprise. While the market economy allows great celebration for some, film noir tends to focus on those whose invitations to the party got lost in the mail. Noir characters often feel economic constraints have been imposed on them. Income inequality seems to have a preferential place in the noir narrative, particularly when one of the major characters plans to do something about it. Laws will be broken and people will get hurt, some irrecoverably. The human cost associated with Stan's aspirations is manifested quickly; he essentially sentences Pete to death with the gift of a full bottle of moonshine, which turns out to be wood alcohol. Stan was unaware of the accidental bottle switch, but it makes little difference. Clearly his thoughts were in place: get Pete out of the way, get working with Zeena on her secret code ("Over my dead body..." Pete had mentioned in an earlier scene when Stan was getting inquisitive about the code). In other words, one man's agonizing decline marks the ascent of another man, which is to say Stan prospers after the death of Pete. That basic dynamic reinforces one of the more unappealing assumptions of capitalism, that for every material world success someone (or, more likely, a large group) is left out in the cold. Pete stands for the displaced man in an economic system unsympathetic to his affliction.
"Son, that's the gospel truth."
With Pete out of the picture, Stan absorbs the proprietary code and works effectively with Zeena before entranced onlookers. Next something even more remarkable transpires: Stan flaunts his seemingly limitless potential as a mentalist when he manipulates a man of the law (James Burke). With Stan cleverly at work under the guise of civility, borderline as a man of God, the scene is played for laughs on one level, but on another level rests the unfunny suggestion the lawman need not be a barrier to the ambitious. If Stan can subvert an experienced local law official, especially a crusty old doubter, perhaps he can bend anyone's will to his liking.
Armed with the same code once employed by Zeena and Pete, Stan aggressively pursues big-city fame and fortune. With a fair amount of initial success, he enters an upper class world where entry is reserved for a chosen few. Perhaps the most noir thing about NIGHTMARE ALLEY is the manner in which its charismatic lead extends his magnetic pull to the viewer. Who wouldn't want to evolve from smalltime carny into The Great Stanton? In spite of Stan's many dubious qualities, regardless of his connection to the death of Pete, we find ourselves pulling for a man of moral ambivalence. It is not difficult to empathize with him in a general way; his ambitions are not dramatically different than anyone else's, the only difference is the lengths to which he will go to execute his plans. His underprivileged background is another critical factor that makes him more likable, if not morally defensible. Stan's upbringing does not evoke pleasant childhood memories: he was beaten routinely in an orphanage before graduating to reform school. With a background like that, his drive to ascend into a higher social stratum comes off as a bit more palatable. Or maybe interminable greed is ingrained in his DNA? Stan briefly discusses his egocentric tendencies during a private conversation with Zeena: "I wonder why I'm like that...never thinking about anybody except myself." He seems aware he has reached his genetic destiny when he accepts employment at the very bottom of the carnival trade during the film's concluding sequence. He ironically states, "I was made for it." If indeed Stan was somehow pre-engineered for his final role, that means he was not born to walk among Chicago sophisticates.
However one might want to account for Stan's rise and fall, NIGHTMARE ALLEY's cynical take on the American dream is along for the ride. In his journey from unremarkable carny to prominent mentalist to stigmatized outcast, our most optimistic notions about endless riches for dogged determination are defeated with Stan. His illusion of propriety ultimately exposed, Stan goes from seemingly limitless upward mobility to a wretched place of immobility, with absolutely no potential for realignment with the upper class he once navigated with supreme confidence. From a Marxist school of film criticism, the story provides a stark reminder of the rigidity of American socioeconomic boundaries.
The decadence represented by the carnival creates a befitting noir backdrop in this film noir and numerous others, including touchstones such as GUN CRAZY (1950), ACE IN THE HOLE (1951) and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). The commotion of carnival life intentionally blurs the line between illusion and reality, what we see and what we do not see, what we believe and what we do not believe. Such uncertainty blends well with the genre's overarching mood of pessimism. That the carnival travels from one place to another works to convey a relentless, ubiquitous noir atmosphere, unsparingly omnipotent. Such a climate is encapsulated fittingly by Zeena's tarot cards, which persistently provide prescient warnings while Stan looks askance.
Closely intertwined with the carnival's noirish conditions emphasized by the tarot cards is Stan's progressively unsteady psychological state. His distressed frame of mind is suggested by the "inhuman" geek's cries of anguish that plague him at several crucial turning points. He cannot seem to escape the threat of being reduced to the lowest level of entertainment, a tragic Id case to be fed live chickens for public amusement. Likely what invigorates the geek in Stan is his humbling recognition he has become the semi-functional drunkard Pete, the man he wanted to replace all along! Consumption of alcohol largely contributes to Stan's torturous downward slide into existential purgatory, where he looks like a bum and smells like a whiskey bottle. The noir film frequently positions alcohol as a harmless vice, but not always, as we witness here and in other instances that include BLACK ANGEL (1946), CROSSFIRE (1947), TRY AND GET ME! (1950) and IN A LONELY PLACE (1950).
A woman's gaze looms large in the opening segment, when Zeena confirms her sexual interest in the younger Stan. To analyze the film in terms of gender representation, disparate female characters help empower Stan, but in due course those same women unplug him, his reduction certified in writing when an emphatic newspaper headline announces he is sought by police. He makes his first major mistake when he turns his back on Zeena, the woman who installed his enhanced capabilities as a mentalist. Stan never considers the possibility that same person could foretell the removal of the skill set she set in motion. After Stan's relationship with Zeena no longer matters to him, the homme fatale moves on to the ingénue Molly (the genial-looking Coleen Gray), who becomes his wife and work wife (partner in their act). As his reputation as a mentalist grows, thanks in large part to encouragement from Zeena and Molly, Stan's belief in himself balloons to epic proportions. His carnival days seemingly long behind him, he preys upon the fragile state of the society woman Addie Peabody (Julia Dean), who desperately misses her departed daughter. In awe of Stan's visions, she financially backs him in the hope he brings others the identical "spiritual comfort" he brought her. In search of even larger stacks of money (no amount is sufficient of course), Stan targets the skeptic Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), a ruthless tycoon who gets over his suspicions and arranges a $150K capital injection for Stan. Assured Ezra is susceptible to further acts of treachery, Stan swoops in for the kill by staging an ethereal appearance of Ezra's deceased sweetheart. Having advanced to the stage of full-blown noir sociopath, Stan makes the catastrophic error of coercing his principled wife Molly into playing along. As so many noir films have echoed, the portrait of marriage as an institution of longevity is questioned in NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Molly has too much character to become Stan's accomplice, Stan has too much self interest to go along with his wife's better judgment. His inability to function as a good husband and decent man makes him susceptible to Molly's antithesis, the deviously capable femme fatale Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), a psychologist. Lilith’s disruptive nature is apparent when Stan first visits her office, where imprisoning shadows imply a lethal trap has been set. Lilith and the schemer Stan form a sleazy noir partnership for the ages, with the headshrinker tapping into personal patient information for astronomical profit. When their alliance expires, Lilith proves herself by far the superior con artist. She plays his game, washes her hands of him and walks away the winner. Thus Stan is brought down by a combination of feminine control, both benign and malignant.
The psychology theme is another vital noir angle, with a psychologist character sometimes shown in unflattering light, i.e. CAT PEOPLE (1942), SHOCK (1946), WHIRLPOOL (1950). Lilith is a psychologist both psychologically complex and conniving, as much competent professional as willing trickster. The most decisive moment for Stan occurs when he seeks Lilith's therapeutic services after again being tormented by the screams of the geek. He reveals his vulnerability during the therapy session, which paves the way for his downfall. The only consolation for Stan at the film's resolution is a reconciliation of sorts with his wife, but that reunion comes at a costly price. That is the ideological function of film noir more often than not: even the redemptive ending has an incurably somber tone. By all accounts the conclusion was intended to soften the landing of the even more downbeat source novel of the same title, but I am not sure Stan's position improves a great deal. Whether he is the new geek (novel) or the new Pete (film) his destiny will be to drink himself to death.
Director Edmund Goulding had helmed Tyrone Power's prior star vehicle, THE RAZOR'S EDGE (1946). Here Goulding delivers one of the most enduring of all film noirs, a production that looks more impressive the more I look at it. It is absolutely loaded with cinematic language that speaks to those who want to listen, with the iconography of film noir particularly vocal in the form of shadows that create visual instability. One of my favorite moments of the film is Goulding's introduction of the villainess. As the camera pans to follow the sweetness portrayed by Coleen Gray, the tracking halts abruptly to focus on the dangerous intellectual played by Helen Walker. Cinematographer Lee Garmes also worked on PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948), which shares an indisputable kinship with NIGHTMARE ALLEY in relation to how a female specter is presented. The imposing presence of Mike Mazurki never seems to do any harm to a film noir, and other notable supporting performances are contributed by Ian Keith, James Burke and Taylor Holmes.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY has arrived on dual-layered Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection. The new 4K digital restoration is framed at 1.37:1 and was derived from a 35mm nitrate composite print. Compared to the DVD released in 2005 for the Fox Film Noir DVD series from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, more information is conveyed on all four sides of the frame. Alongside other film noirs of that era that have been resurrected on Blu-ray, i.e. OUT OF THE PAST (1947), KEY LARGO (1948) and NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950), the transfer looks a little soft, but the overall visual impact is more than acceptable and a fine upgrade for owners of the Fox DVD.
The new Criterion Blu-ray offers a slew of supplemental material, starting with the audio commentary track recorded in 2005 for the Fox DVD. Commendable film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini stress NIGHTMARE ALLEY was matinee idol Tyrone Power's project; 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck did not aid in the film's promotion. Power wanted it, he made it happen. His hope was to step away from romantic leading roles to something that would allow him to demonstrate his talent range as an actor. Though an obvious success from an artistry standpoint, NIGHTMARE ALLEY was not a financial winner; audiences did not accept Power as the lead in this type of project. The source material was written by William Lindsay Gresham, whose debut novel NIGHTMARE ALLEY was published in 1946. An alcoholic, Gresham was abusive to his wife Joy Davidman, who later married C. S. Lewis. Gresham would kill himself at the Hotel Carter, Manhattan, the identical hotel in which he wrote NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Gresham was once a member of the communist party, which was by no means unusual for a writer during this era, but that piece of information is interesting given the nature of the material under consideration. Silver makes an excellent point that the moral code of behavior is more strict in the carnival than the outside world, especially in comparison with the upper class. My favorite observation from the commentators is that Stan struggles to come up with enough ink to write the word "wife." It is a terrific moment in the film, so subtle yet so telling.
New bonus material includes an interview (31m 52s) with film scholar Imogen Sara Smith, who has her gameface on, as always. Smith explains the Gresham novel was condemned widely on grounds of blasphemy, so much so the pending film adaptation prompted letters of protest from an outraged public. The alcoholic Gresham was himself the subject of psychoanalysis, so it is fair to surmise he wrote NIGHTMARE ALLEY at least in part from self experience. New evidence suggests the author may have received a terminal cancer diagnosis before he chose to end his life in 1962. Producer George Jessel and screenwriter Jules Furthman were brought in to downplay the deeply cynical tone of the book, as well as make the film a little more Production Code ready. Plot elements scrubbed from the source material include the botched back alley abortion that kills Ezra's love and the sexual relationship between Stan and Lilith (in the movie he shrugs off her advances, preferring they focus on their business affairs). I did not think about it while watching NIGHTMARE ALLEY three times in one week, but Smith observes this is one of the few film noirs to not feature guns. "All of the torments are internal," according to Smith. I agree this is a purely psychological film noir, as opposed to the more visceral style of noir favored by filmmakers such as Phil Karlson, Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray, who did not shy away from featuring violent situations. Another compelling point raised by Smith is that interest in spiritualism is always strongest after times of war, when people want to connect with friends and family lost in military conflict.
Also fresh for 2021 is "Step Right Up! Todd Robbins on the History of the American Sideshow" (19m 17s). The author of THE MODERN CON MAN: HOW TO GET SOMETHING FOR NOTHING (2008) tracks the evolution of the carnival and sideshow from a world's fair held in Chicago in 1893. Fans of NIGHTMARE ALLEY will be interested to hear Robbins confirm how a geek was manufactured. The hopeless alcoholic or mentally deficient man (or both I suppose) merely pretended to devour a chicken's head in return for a daily bottle and a place to sleep. Eventually the sideshow boss would demand the chicken's head be bitten off for real or no more bed and bottle. Completely dependent on the regular alcohol dose and without any better options to get it, the geek complied. The sideshow declined as rides became more prevalent in the traveling carnival and improved prenatal care minimized the birth of “freaks.”
"Coleen Gray on NIGHTMARE ALLEY" (12m 41s) was recorded in 2007 and appears here courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation. Gray recalls working with Darryl F. Zanuck, Tyrone Power and director Edmund Goulding. The actress credits Goulding for encouraging her to control her emotions when her instincts were to give too much as an actress. In the 1971 audio excerpt (9m 36s) with Henry King, the filmmaker describes how he convinced Zanuck to feature the young unknown Power in LLOYDS OF LONDON (1936). While reviewing the dailies, Zanuck informed King the director’s instincts were correct about Power. A trailer (2m 30s) is also selectable, and the packaging includes an essay by film critic and screenwriter Kim Morgan, who along with Guillermo del Toro co-wrote the screenplay for the remake, currently scheduled for release December 2021. Another nice add within the packaging are six tarot cards. I took care not to allow any of them to fall to the floor.