Saturday, December 1, 2018

Movie Reviews: Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley
directed by Edmund Goulding
This is one of the better noir films I've seen. He's probably too old to do a remake of this but I couldn't help but think that George Clooney would have done well being cast as the lead in a remake. Or maybe Ben Affleck or Michael B. Jordan. It would have to be someone who could almost effortlessly embody the mix of danger, good looks and loose morals that Hollywood sharp dressed leading man Tyrone Power did in this film, which was quite different from his normal fare. This movie wasn't a hit when it first came out, likely because the material could be construed as downbeat. Nevertheless Power's physicality and grace are essential to the film's story and looks.

Carny barker Stan Carlisle (Power) is a smooth man who employs his verbal adeptness  to drum up interest in the traveling carnival in which he works.  Stan is both fascinated and disgusted by his fellow carnival workers, particularly the lowly geek (the man who bites the heads off chickens). Stan can't imagine how anyone can fall so low. Stan doesn't intend for that to happen to him. No sir.  Stan has big plans for himself.  He is chummy with older fellow carny worker Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith). 

Zeena and Pete used to be big time. They worked a mind-reading hustle before Pete's drinking habits ruined it. The couple used a secret code to tip each other off to the correct questions and answers. But Zeena doesn't want to share that code with Stan. She's saving it for a rainy day when she can hopefully get the drunk Pete some help. And she won't give it up for money or even that other currency that men and women use with each other.

However, Stan is nothing if not persistent and persuasive. After Pete is no longer in the equation, Zeena has no choice but to share the con with Stan. But Stan has little interest in sticking around the backwoods making nickels from rubes. He also has little real interest in Zeena. Forced into a shotgun marriage with the beautiful and worshipful Molly (Colleen Gray) and blamed, fairly or not, for what happened to Pete, Stan decides to strike out on his own. 

Stan relocates to Chicago and becomes the famous mindreader "The Great Stanton". Stan and Molly do well for themselves in the Chicago nightclub circuit, astounding well heeled people and separating them from their money. Stan has seemingly found his niche. And Molly is happy to call him her man. She's devoted and content, at least as far as Stan can tell.

But Stan is troubled by what happened to Pete. He needs someone to ease his mind. He also wants even more success. One woman who might be able to help him with both goals is the cool headed psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) But you know what they say. Sometimes you see the same people on your way back down who you saw on your way up.

Although Power is undoubtedly the film's star it's the women who collectively really make this movie work.  They aren't truly secondary characters. One woman is clearly a lot smarter than she lets on; her intelligence, self-assurance and self-interest is a surprise to other characters. The film shows that women don't need to act like men in order to be taken seriously or to be dangerous. The film ramps up the sense of dread and guilt that swirl around the key characters. The film elegantly both uses and avoids sex and violence. Nightmare Alley, like many films of the postwar era tells an adult tale without modern day explicitness or vulgarity. Modern eyes will of course be taken aback by the actors' and actresses' slender frames and ubiquitous cigarette smoking. Nightmare Alley is a fascinating look at both sides of the con and the cost to the people involved. 
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