Blu-ray Review: Nightmare Alley

STUDIO: Criterion Collection | DIRECTOR: Edmund Goulding | CAST: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki
RELEASE DATE: 5/25/21 | PRICE: Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: Audio commentary from 2005 featuring film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver, new interviews with critic Imogen Sara Smith and performer/historian Todd Robbins, interview from 2007 with actor Coleen Gray, audio excerpt of a 1971 interview with Henry King
SPECS: NR | 111 min. | Drama | 1.37:1 | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

The film noir cycle produced many cynical views of human behavior, but few noirs ever revealed as much about the dark side of humanity as Nightmare Alley (1947) does. Tyrone Power’s desire to escape his heroic-heartthrob image (The Mark of Zorro, Blood and Sand) led to him playing an utterly amoral con artist in this masterpiece about a “carny” with grand ambitions.

Power’s character, Stan Carlisle, is a new member of a carnival troop who learned about the secrets of the sideshow — namely, the various “codes” used by psychics to pretend they’re channeling the spirits and the sad tale of the geek (the lowest man on the carny totem pole, an alcoholic playing a “savage” who bites off the heads of chickens as a “specialty act”).

The fact that the story of the geek is is even present in a late Forties major studio film is one of the most “adult” aspect of the film, but other cynical elements follow in quick succession — Stan learns the codes by seducing a friendly psychic (Joan Blondell, The Cincinnati Kid), drops her and becomes a popular nightclub “mentalist” with his new lady love (Coleen Gray, Red River), and finally realizes he can break into the “spook racket” (read: seances). At that point his ambition is leading him to recruit “converts” to his new ministry — and then comes the inevitable downfall. (This is a noir, after all.)

The above synopsis barely conveys the jaded way in which the film’s plot, adapted from the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, proceeds. Stan isn’t even an antihero — he’s simply a heel who has learned the tricks of the trade (several trades) and anticipates what different audiences want.

The only points at which the film has any degree of corniness at all are the scenes in which Blondell’s character (who is a fake onstage but does believe in the spirit realm) warns Stan of his eventual fate. But even those scenes become menacing as the film moves on and we realize — to quote one Universal monster movie — “He meddled in things men should leave alone.”

The film still has its share of surprises after 74 years, as one has to reconcile the handsome Power playing such an irredeemably heartless individual so well and that 20th Century Fox (with producer George Jessel!) made a film that found such an utterly reprehensible protagonist moving through several equally squalid milieus.

As Stan moves up the social ladder, he discovers a more affluent group of rubes to fleece and one realizes the film isn’t just about the underside of carnival life in particular and show business in general; it’s also about addiction, ambition, and the innately American need to believe in something that is transparently artificial (and, conversely, those who whose existence is predicated on ripping off those who believe).

The Gresham novel is currently being adapted by Guillermo Del Toro for a new film version to star Bradley Cooper. Once again, the adjectives “unasked-for” and “unnecessary” rejoin the noun “remake.”

The package includes a 2005 commentary by noir experts James Ursini and Alain Silver. Also present is a fragment from an audio interview with director Henry King, who talks about screen-testing Tyrone Power (then Tyrone Power Jr, as his father had a notable acting career) for the 1936 film Lloyd’s of London.

A 2007 interview with Coleen Grey finds her discussing director Edmund Goulding, whom she says acted out each part for the actors in Nightmare Alley. For her biggest scene, in which her character tells off Stan, Goulding kept demanding that she “think of cabbage.” It’s not clear why he kept hollering this at her, but she finally took his advice and did the scene in the key he wanted — it is only then she explains that she was prone to emote too broadly in her scenes, and Goulding chose that weird demand to throw her off-kilter.

In an original supplement created for this package, carnival performer and writer Todd Robbins supplies a highly entertaining “pocket history” of the carnival sideshow from its origins to the current day. The most fascinating thing he brings up is the fact that carnival geeks didn’t in fact bite the heads off of the live chickens they performed with, but in fact killed them by a different method and merely pretended to be biting into them. (The film for Nightmare Alley simply goes with the legend.) Although, Robbins adds, in some truly unseemly carnivals, the last-stage alcoholic geeks were indeed told to perform their act for real, in exchange for more free booze.

In an info-packed half-hour, critic Imogen Sara Smith offers background on novelist Gresham (an expert on the carnival and alcoholism), scripter Jules Furthman (the Hawks/Sternberg veteran brought in to soften Gresham’s harsh creation), cinematographer Lee Garmes, producer Jessel (who wanted the film to focus on Stan’s blasphemy earning him a final punishment), and director Goulding — whom, she informs us, had “wild bisexual orgies” that resulted in two participants being hospitalized. (This from a director best known for classic, wholesome “women’s pictures” like Dark Victory.)

Smith finishes up with a discussion of how Nightmare Alley flopped at the box office because Fox under-publicized it on purpose. Studio head Darryl Zanuck allowed Power to make the film but was never truly happy with his matinee-idol star playing an amoral heel.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”