and the Devil himself...

and the Devil himself...
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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Film Noir, 'Nightmare Alley'

by Matthew Hoffman




Carnival Film Noir - "Nightmare Alley"


Nightmare Alley

“Throughout the ages, man has sought to look behind the veil that hides him from tomorrow. And through the ages, certain men have looked into the polished crystal… and seen. Is it some quality of the crystal itself, or does the gazer merely use it to turn his gaze inward? Who knows? But visions come…slowly shifting their form. Visions come.” – Pete Krumbein, Nightmare Alley

“I’m a hustler, God damn it. Do you understand that, you frozen-faced bitch? I’m on the make. Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough. When you get that you’re the boss. If you don’t have it you’re the end man on the daisy chain. I’m going to get it if I have to bust every bone in my head doing it. I’m going to milk it out of those chumps and take them for the gold in their teeth before I’m through.” – Stan Carlisle to Dr. Lilith Ritter, Nightmare Alley (the novel)

      Nightmare Alley is the story of Stan Carlisle, a carnival hustler with dreams of the big time. He starts out his career as part of a mentalist act with Zeena, an older woman he’s sleeping with, and her drunken husband, Pete. But after he learns Zeena’s “code” of working the crowd, Stan leaves his carny roots with a younger girl, Molly. He forms a spiritualist act as “The Great Stanton” and is able to con his way into the pocketbooks of the rich and elderly who seek his comfort. He moves up in the world until he meets the one person who is as manipulative as himself, a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Lilith Ritter.

      In the 1947 film, Tyrone Power portrays Stan, and this would be his finest performance-- and his personal favorite. He was so determined to break away from his romantic, swashbuckler image that he bought the rights to the original novel in the hopes of turning it into a film. Studio head Daryl Zanuck gave the project the green light, and the end result became one of the darkest film noirs of the era. However, the studio did little to promote it. Despite the fact that Daryl Zanuck washed his hands of it as soon as he could, Nightmare Alley was a very daring movie for its time. It was a shock for audiences to see what handsome Tyrone Power becomes in this movie in his transformation from cool huckster to degenerate, sideshow “geek.”

      The novel Nightmare Alley was written by William Lindsay Gresham, a troubled, alcoholic author who wrote about carnival life and later fell under the spell of spiritualism. Gresham’s only successful book is a phenomenal first novel about a hustler who knows human nature all too well. Though Gresham was an editor for a true crime pulp magazine, this was no formulaic pulp story. There are no gangsters or gunplay in this tale of carny life. But it is an ambitious, almost experimental work which is as cynical as anything Jim Thompson wrote. The novel is out of print but can still be found in a terrific Library of America anthology of American noir of the ‘30s and ‘40s. In recent years it has been turned into an acclaimed graphic novel.

      But the original 1946 novel is a great work about the kind of person who preys upon a world in need of emotional comfort, and it’s very contemporary in this day and age of televangelists, home shopping hucksters, New Age charlatans and the Psychic Friends Network. In the eyes of Stan Carlisle, it’s a world of easy marks—people who are desperate to believe in something better, who can be taken in so easily with the right words of comfort.

      Author Gresham attributed the genesis of Nightmare Alley to conversations he had with a former sideshow employee while he served as a volunteer medic with the Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. He later wrote the novel while in New York City in the 1940s, living in the Dixie Hotel near Coney Island where he researched carny life. It was in this very same hotel where, in 1962, Gresham would take his own life by downing a bottle of sleeping pills.

      The novel is divided into 22 chapters, each representative of a Tarot card. Often times in noir fiction and film it is Fate that is the unseen, primary character, and in Nightmare Alley, Fate takes the form of Zeena’s Tarot cards. And no card is more telling than that of the “Hanged Man.”

      Tyrone Power saw the potential in the story—there was something in the character of Stan, a darkness that drew him. But it is the guilt he brings to the onscreen version of the character that humanizes him. With this film, along with The Razor’s Edge the previous year in 1946, he would break away from the romantic and heroic characters he had played in films like In Old Chicago, Blood and Sand, The Black Swan, and many others. He’s a long way from Zorro in this film.

      Jules Furthman adapted the Gresham story. He had been the screenwriter who had worked on The Big Sleep. Edmund Goulding directed, having recently helmed The Razor’s Edge. But this nightmare would be his best achievement—a bleak vision far removed from the 1930s melodramas he had made like Grand Hotel. Cinematographer Lee Garmes was a native of Peoria, Illinois, and he had started in motion pictures back in 1916. He photographed many of the Joseph Von Sternberg films at Paramount in the early 1930s, as well as having shot one of the most beautiful films of the 1930s, Zoo in Budapest, for director Rowland V. Lee. Although he was uncredited, he had done some of the camera work on Gone With the Wind—shooting the famous rail yard sequence.

      But on Nightmare Alley Garmes brought what has been called a Rembrandt-style of lighting to the film in which the light seemed to come from a single source. Characters are lit in such a way that only in a film noir could a cinematographer get away with such disregard for classical high key lighting. There are the hard shadows and the fractured, low-key lighting that is most evident in the scenes within the carnival world.

      Supporting Tyrone Power is a wonderful cast including Joan Blondell as Zeena, best remembered for the series of Busby Berkely musicals she had appeared in throughout the 1930s at Warner Brothers. Coleen Gray plays the young sideshow performer Molly, but she is nowhere near as electrifying as Helen Walker’s psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter. Helen Walker is the ultimate, intelligent femme fatale, and her final scene is remarkable on many levels. (Most surprising for a 1947 film, she gets away with her crime; not even the Hollywood Production Code could get her.)

The film also stars Mike Mazurki as Bruno the strongman, best remembered as “Moose Malloy” in Murder, My Sweet. Ian Keith is wonderful as Joan Blondell’s drunken husband, Pete. Keith had been around in Hollywood for many years, having portrayed John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s first sound film, Abraham Lincoln. His name would later be mentioned in conjunction with Dracula—a part that would instead go to a Hungarian stage actor by the name of Bela Lugosi. And silent film star Taylor Holmes plays the rich industrialist, Ezra Grindle. All these characters are straight from the book.

      This is a big studio film noir, and 20th Century Fox spared no expense, even going so far as to build their own carnival on 10 acres of studio lot. Though it wasn’t actually filmed in Chicago, the story is partially set in Chicago with references to the Rogers Park neighborhood as well as to the rich North Shore—a world of money. And not much has changed all these years later.

      Nightmare Alley touches upon many themes, from class division (and how there really is none on a moral level) to self-deception and self-destruction-- and the horrors found at the bottom of a whiskey bottle.  There’s a line in the film where Stan speaks about this sideshow hustle. “It gives you kind of a superior feeling,” he tells Zeena in the shadowy midway, “as if you were on the inside and everybody else is on the outside, looking in.” Nightmare Alley takes us inside in a way that no other film could before. We see Stan’s power over others and what that power can lead to when you reach too high.

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