Monday, May 5, 2014

Power-Mad – The Tyrone Power Centennial Blogathon: Nightmare Alley (1947)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to Power-Mad, a blogathon celebrating the centennial birthday of actor Tyrone Power and hosted by The Lady Eve at The Lady Eve’s Reel Life and Patti at They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To.  For a list of the participating blogs and topics discussed, click here.  (Warning: I give away the ending to this remarkable film…so on the off-chance you’ve not yet seen it you might want to wait until you have before reading.)

Here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, I’ve joked in the past about a creation of mine I call The Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™; it states that no matter how much animosity I possess toward a particular classic film performer, I can usually find something they were in that allows me to say in complete honesty, “I liked him (or her) in that.”  For example—I’m on record as often referring to a certain revered child actress on the blog as She Who Must Not Be Named…but I thought she gave a great performance in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945).  On the male side of the coin, I thought Mickey Rooney (my other bête noire when it comes to kiddie thesps) did phenomenal work in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962).  (The theory was inspired by the old maxim “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.”)

The same theorem can be applied to the man whose centennial birthday we’re observing with today’s blogathon…although to be honest, I’m a bit more charitable when it comes to Tyrone Power in that I can think of more than one movie he graced that I like—Jesse James (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940), Rawhide (1951) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957) to name a few examples.  But the one film of Power’s that I can sit down with over and over again is a cult noir classic that the actor had to fight his boss, 20th Century-Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck, to make.  In 1946, author William Lindsay Gresham published a best seller that showed readers the seamy side of the human condition with a sordid tale about carnival hustlers…and in 1947, it reached motion picture screens: Nightmare Alley.

Con man Stanton Carlisle (Power) is working as a barker in a traveling carnival, alongside a phony mystic named Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her besotted husband Pete (Ian Keith).  Zeena and Pete were once the toast of vaudeville with a boffo mindreading act that relied heavily on a words-and-numbers code…but the couple’s fortunes have since fallen, because Pete climbed into a bottle and pulled the stopper in after him years ago due to one of his wife’s indiscretions.  Zeena is still supportive of Pete, and believes that she could raise enough scratch to send Pete to detox by selling their code (what she calls their “nest egg”), but Stanton quickly has other ideas.

One of the interesting visual touches in Alley: as Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power) whistles a happy tune, the word "geek" appears above him on the tent...foreshadowing his life station by the end of the film.
While playing a town in Texas, Stan purchases a quart of moonshine from a fellow carny and after taking a few swallows, hides it in a prop trunk when he spots Pete knocking on the carny’s trailer door in search of booze.  Stan takes pity on Pete’s condition (Zeena has cut down his intake considerably), and hands him the ‘shine from the trunk…only to discover to his horror that he accidentally gave Pete a bottle of wood alcohol Zeena used in the act when the carnival folk find Pete dead as a doornail the next morning.  Zeena is then forced to keep the act going with Carlisle replacing Pete, and she teaches him the code that the couple used so successfully in vaudeville.

Carlisle has ambitions beyond the popcorn-and-sawdust circuit, however.  To stave off any romantic notions that Zeena might have, Stan learns the code alongside a young carnival performer named Molly (Coleen Gray), with whom he’s flirted in the past.  This arrangement does not sit well with her protector, Bruno (Mike Mazurki)…and when it’s learned by Zeena, Bruno and the other carnies that Stan has had his way with Molly, they force the two lovers into a shotgun marriage.  This doesn’t turn out to be as bad as Carlisle had anticipated; the couple soon find themselves playing swanky Chicago nightclubs in a mindreading act that bills Stan as “The Great Stanton.”  It is during a performance that Carlisle crosses paths with a psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), whose recordings made of patients seeking help will prove an invaluable asset to Stan’s unquenchable ambition.

The light patterns from the window in Lilith's (Walker) office form a spider web...with the good doctor in the role of black widow (seen here with patient Julia Dean).

With Lilith’s help, Stan cons a nightclub patron (Julia Dean) into believing he can communicate with the dead…and his scam proves so convincing that a millionaire named Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes) soon becomes Stan’s patron—with a big payoff guaranteed if Carlisle can conjure up the spirit of Grindle’s deceased love.  Stan will need Molly to pose as the dead woman, but she’s starting to have second thoughts about the direction their lives is taking…it was fine when it was just show business, but she considers Stanton’s claims of communicating with spirits to be blasphemy.  She reluctantly goes along with the scheme…until she has a change of heart at the sight of Grindle begging The Almighty for forgiveness.  With Stan’s racket exposed, he and Molly will need to take a fast train out of the Windy City at their earliest opportunity.

I can smell the corn dogs and funnel cake from here.
Stan asks Molly to wait for him at the station while he collects money that he left for safekeeping with Dr. Ritter.  The con man learns that he himself has been bamboozled—and when he returns to Lilith’s to demand what’s his she proves herself to be every bit his equal, threatening to reveal to the authorities the circumstances behind Pete’s demise (the details of which she surreptitiously recorded one night as Carlisle was unburdening his troubles on her).  Stan gives Molly what little money he has as the train pulls out of the station without him.

Carlisle descends into alcoholism, and winds up destitute at a carnival whose manager (Roy Roberts) has the perfect job for him: performing as “the geek.”  Asked if he’s up to the task, he drunkenly slurs “Mister…I was made for it.”  And so our anti-hero embarks on a life of biting the heads of chickens in exchange for a bottle a day and a warm place to sleep.  Nightmare Alley ends on a small note of redemption when Molly discovers the true identity of the new “geek” and, consoling her husband, vows to nurse him back to health.

One of the grimmest entries in all of film noir, Alley was adapted from an out-of-the-box best seller from the aforementioned William Lindsay Gresham, who was inspired to write the novel from conversations he had with an ex-carnival worker while the two fought for the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War.  Gresham later pounded out Alley while working as an editor for a NYC magazine; like his protagonist Stanton Carlisle, the book represented his one big chance to grab the brass ring—but he was never able to follow up its initial success and ended up overdosing on pills in a hotel in 1962…the very same hotel in which he once worked on Nightmare Alley.

Alley provided the grist for what is truly one of the grimmest entries in the film noir style.  Its seedy carnival show business milieu offers an ironic commentary on the country’s malaise after World War II.  The main character, while receiving a little Hollywood redemption at the end of the film (though it’s not hard to imagine he’ll wind up in the same fate as the alcoholic Pete), shares many facets of what we would recognize as sociopathic behavior; Stanton Carlisle uses his glib, superficial charm and knack for manipulation to swindle “marks” and inch closer and closer to meeting his lofty goals.  Though he does romance a trio of women throughout the film, his relationships often seem to be means to an end—any compassion or emotion seems feigned and insincere.  Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to exhibit any remorse or guilt for his pathological lying; Carlisle’s background is pockmarked with a history of juvenile delinquency and other misbehavior from an early age.

The fascinating aspect of Nightmare Alley is that despite the caddishness on full display from Stanton Carlisle, he’s a piker compared to femme fatale Dr. Lilith Ritter, who’s truly a piece of work (she reminds me of that line from Out of the Past, “just a bit cold around the heart”).  It’s interesting to note that while we expect the carnival people to be a bit on the dishonest side (they have sort of acquired that reputation); they do adhere to some semblance of a moral code (they pledge to Zeena that they’ll keep Pete away from the booze…and also insist on the marriage of Stan and Molly) whereas the wealthy, respectable Ritter has thrown away the rule book and eventually brings about the downfall of Stanton with her wonderfully wicked amorality.  As the icy cold Lilith Ritter, Helen Walker would have the greatest role of her tragically short career…and later made return trips to Noir City in vehicles like Call Northside 777 and The Big Combo. 

The other themes addressed in the film involve spirituality and religion; Stan and Zeena play on the primal fears of the unknown of the various rubes that attend their carnival performances…yet Zeena fervently believes in the power of her Tarot cards (which predict the demise of Pete…and how Stan will eventually follow in his footsteps).  Joan Blondell made her reputation at the Warner Brothers studio in the 1930s gracing Depression-era musicals and racy pre-Codes…but because age comes to us all, her career in the 1940s took the character actress exit ramp and she started getting good notices for mature turns in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Alley—which I think showcases Joan at her finest. 

It is hinted that Carlisle might actually exhibit a small amount of psychic ability (I personally chalk it up to an intuitive talent that some sociopaths are known to possess) despite his conviction that it’s nothing but bunk.  Unbothered at first by using all this as a means to obtain a fast buck, Molly later experiences a crisis of conscience…she’s convinced that her husband is trespassing in God’s domain and that he risks being struck dead on the spot.  Up-and-comer Coleen Gray plays the sweetly supportive Molly; Gray would use this film as a stepping stone (as well as the same year’s Kiss of Death) for later noirs like Kansas City Confidential and The Killing.

Shocking.  Positively shocking.

Another noir icon in the form of former athlete Mike Mazurki is on hand in Alley; playing the menacing Bruno, Mazurki’s best known as the hulking Moose Malloy from the hard-boiled classic Murder, My Sweet…but in addition, he made unforgettable impressions in Night and the City and Dark City.  Character favorites Ian Keith and Taylor Holmes also do excellent work, plus there are plenty of TDOY faves such as Oliver Blake, George Chandler, Emmett Lynn (as the hobos who make Carlisle’s acquaintance toward the end), Harry Cheshire, Julia Dean, Roy Roberts, Gene Roth (as a masseuse!) and Marjorie Wood (OTR announcer John Wald can also be heard plying his trade).

But Nightmare Alley is Tyrone Power’s show all the way—Ty was never better as a hustler whose reach clearly exceeds his grasp.  Upon his discharge from the U.S. Marines in January of 1946, First Lieutenant Power was anxious to start making films again; his last movie was 1943’s Crash Dive, and Ty wanted very much to shake off that romantic, swashbuckling image that marked many of his earlier vehicles by seeking out the types of more mature roles he had played on stage.  His first post-War production was The Razor’s Edge, based on the 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, which wound up being nominated for four Academy Awards (winning one for Anne Baxter as Best Supporting Actress).  Ty then moved onto his next project; he purchased the rights to Gresham’s Alley for $60,000 and was determined to bring the book to the silver screen over the objections of Fox studio head Zanuck.  The actor was able to use his pull in the industry to bring the movie to light…and despite his reservations, Zanuck awarded what would normally be B-movie material the production values of an A-film…even going so far as constructing a full working carnival (complete with 100 sideshow attractions and plenty of extras) on ten acres of Fox’s backlot to make the proceedings “realistic.”

Director Edmund Goulding—who had been at the helm of Power’s previous Razor’s Edge and whose cinematic oeuvre included Grand Hotel and Dark Victory—was picked to ride herd on a film produced by, of all people, “Toastmaster General” George Jessel.  (“Georgie” had been producing many of Fox’s splashy Technicolor musicals since the mid-40s.)  Jules Furthman, an expert at scripting films with complicated, labyrinthine plots (hello Big Sleep!), adapted Gresham’s book and did an expert job…even though he did have to tack on a more optimistic ending at Zanuck’s request.  With breathtaking cinematography courtesy of Lee Garmes (and special photography effects from Fred Sersen), the result was a gorgeous-looking “A” picture containing non-mainstream elements like geeks, dipsomaniacs and premarital sex…which does not result in negative consequences, oddly enough.

One can only imagine if Darryl F. Zanuck had a “told you so” dance in his holster; Nightmare Alley did dismal box office and D.F.Z. eventually pulled the film without giving a re-release a second thought.  Those critics that did see the film, however, gave Tyrone Power some of the best notices of his career…and with Alley, the actor demonstrated to naysayers (myself included) that he was more than just a pretty face.  From the time I read Danny Peary’s essay on this essential film noir in the movie buff’s bible, Cult Movies, I sought out Nightmare Alley with a fervor and passion unparalleled in the annals of film aficionado-dom.  This was before the wonders of the Internets; I finally tracked it down one Saturday morning on Cinemax (the cable channel used to have a regular feature then entitled “Not Available on Home Video”) and later got a repeat showing via the glory days of American Movie Classics, when it was featured in a film noir festival.  For a time, television was the only readily accessible way to see Alley; sticky legal complications between the Jessel estate and other involved parties kept the movie out of the VHS racks for a number of years but in June of 2005 it was finally released on DVD.  I’ve enjoyed the movie countless times since then.  Mister…I was made for it.


Clayton @ Claytonology said...

I avoided this one for years. I mean, Zorro biting off a chicken's head? No way! Of course, it was Tyrone Power, so it was an inevitable thing to watch it eventually, and I'm happy I did so. It proves, once again, that Power was fearless when it came to picking roles, especially in his later years.

Great choice, great post.

Vintage Cameo said...

Great film, and very interesting to learn all the background, behind-the-scenes stuff! I saw this for the first time at an all-night film festival a few years back... the terrible fate of becoming a "geek" was very amusing for the largely "geeky" crowd there. Fantastic choice!

Karen said...

Loved your epic post about one of my favorite noirs. I also enjoyed the info about the supporting cast, as well as the interesting tidbits about Power. Good stuff!

The Lady Eve said...

I'd seen Nightmare Alley a time or two before I read the book and, grim as the subject matter is on film, the book is many times grimmer and darker. But the adaptation is probably as close to the book as anyone could get in 1947 (and for decades after).

Knowing nothing about Nightmare Alley - other than that it starred Tyrone Power - before I watched it for the first time, it was a bit daunting for me to watch the heart-throb of millions devolve into a - GEEK! I later realized that he gave the performance of his career in it and that, as far as talent was concerned, "he was made for it."

Fantastic review, Ivan, and great backstory details. Thanks for covering Nightmare Alley for Power-Mad!

Caftan Woman said...

"Nightmare Alley" is one of my legacy movies as it was a favourite of my late father's, and he probably showed it to me the first time before I was ready for it. I have yet to find the words that adequately describe how I feel about Power's fine performance as Stanton Carlisle. A con man whose greatest dupe was himself.

Patti said...

Ivan, I took your advice and did not read this entire article, because, hard as it may be to believe since I claim Ty Power as one of my great loves, I have not yet seen this film.

I'm glad that even though you don't much care for Power that you are able to find some of his films to enjoy. (I've been unable to do that with Katharine Hepburn.)

Even though I haven't read it, I know you've given this article your usual stellar touch. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon, as this film is one of the essentials for any celebration of Ty Power's career.

Patti said...

I was mistaken in the above comment...I absolutely love "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," even though Katharine Hepburn is in that.

Just had to set the record straight.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

You see, Patti? The Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™ works!

ClassicBecky said...

Epic critique of a movie I also adore, Ivan. I did a piece on it for The Dark Pages a couple of years ago (and one on my blog, I think). Nightmare Alley deserves all the praise you give it. I've always thought it would have been a much more powerful ending if Molly had not been there at the end to save Stan, but Hollywood didn't really allow that in those days. My favorite Power performances are The Razor's Edge, The Sun Also Rises and Nightmare Alley. I go for the darker, dramatic stuff! He was superb in Nightmare Alley.

Again, wonderful job, Ivan!

Hamlette said...

I love film noir and can't believe I haven't seen this yet! Wowie zowie, you can bet it's on my radar now. Much as I dig Power as a swashbuckler and hero, I really loved him in The Sun Also Rises, which I saw for the first time this month in prep for my blogathon contribution. I was agog at the emotional depth he brought forward, and I'm looking forward to seeing this now, since it sounds like it's another meaty role for him! Thanks for the great review that made me add this to my Amazon wish list!

grouchomarxist said...

Excellent and very informative review of one of my all-time favorite film noirs, Ivan.

I'm with ClassicBecky: From the first time I saw it, I've suspected that the movie was meant to end with Power replying "Mister ... I was made for it!" and now you tell me D.F.Z. was responsible for the alteration. That's one mystery solved ...

I too thought Power did a fine job in The Sun Also Rises, but Nightmare Alley is truly a once-in-a-lifetime performance. I admire his courage for pushing this project, but his sense of timing really sucked. It was just too soon after the war, when people wanted a return to "normalcy". It was way too much of a stretch for a lot of them, to see Zorro playing such a completely amoral bastard.

And since you brought up She Who Yada Yada, I'd like to add another movie where I thought she did a fine job: Jane Eyre. As a general rule, though, child actors set my teeth on edge.