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.
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.|
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).|
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.|
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.
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.
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.
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.|
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).
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.”
(“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.
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.