Lawrence Russell

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) 111 m. dir. Edmund Goulding writ. Jules Furthman [from the novel by William Lindsay Gresham] cine. Lee Garmes [special effects Fred Sersen] edt. Barbara McLean art. Lyle Wheeler & J. Russell Spencer music. Cyril Mockridge cost. Bonnie Cashin prod. George Jessel

star. Tyrone Power (Stan Carlisle/the Great Stanton) Joan Blondell (Zeena) Colleen Gray (Molly) Helen Walker (Lillith Ritter) Taylor Holmes Mike Mazurki Ian Keith et. al.

20th Century Fox 1947

Nightmare Alley|| Depending on who you believe, Edmund Goulding either died from a heart attack or by suicide in 1959 following a depraved life of bisexual adventurism. The conflicted nature of his personality is certainly evident in the gloomy patina of Nightmare Alley, especially in the night-shadow sequences of the carnival action that occupy the first half of the film. Despite the obvious live theatre stylings -- ensemble acting and static setting -- the film could be classed as neo-realism because of its real-time scenes, minimal music, and documentary detail. Yet despite this naturalism, we see the psychology of inner space, occult mysticism and Freudian hucksterism beautifully revealed within the atmospheric poetry of the semi-tone cinematography. This 1947 film influenced the style of David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) and the content of Roger Corman's The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963), and, despite its uneven narrative, has to be considered one of the best examples of black and white photography as visual metaphor in modern film drama.

||| The carnival is in town... although we see no town, only the dilapidated theatres of the travelling freak show. It's a closed, deceptive world of curtains and shadows, where concealment and revelation are as ritualized as the culture of a New Orleans voodoo cemetery. One by one the principals are introduced as the camera patrols: The Geek, for now seen only as a brutal caveman on a marquee poster, blood dripping from his fangs; Zeena the Seer [Joan Blondell], lounging on her stage, watching the gathering crowd with the sleepy slattern eyes of a fallen Tarot priestess; Bruno the strongeman in a leopard-skin wrap... his young assistant Molly, pretty and wholesome enough to be a Sunday School teacher on the lam... and Stan Carlisle [Tyrone Power], a young buck moving through the throng as if he's just another voyeur here for a good time, not a working member of the carnival. Thus the point-of-view is established as that of Stan, the neophyte carny, his fresh young arms unblemished by tattoos, his bright eyes on the thrilling edge of corruption.

The Geek? Of course Stan is fascinated by the Geek, the number 1 attraction. He approaches the handler, hustles him for information. Why would anyone play the part? He gets a dirty look. The subject is taboo, as if our ugly ancestry as just another blood-lust animal is the real question, the contaminated sub-text of human pornography. The handler exhorts the crowd to line up for the ghastly show, then tosses a couple of live chickens into the throng with the clincher, "And now, folks, it's feeding time!"

another exotic animal in the night

Stan moves on, flirts with Molly, the young presenter for Bruno/Hercules, the strong-man act. It's Molly who tells him about "The Code", the jealously guarded secret system of words and correlative numbers that Zeena (the Seer) and her partner Pete use to "read" the minds of the naive. And it's Pete, the derelict prompter who lies beneath the stage or in his crib in a perpetual drunken daze, who reveals the common wounds within the common mind that can be exploited by a crafty mentalist on the hustle.

Pete hustles no more, of course. Kept by Zeena, but broken by her in the past when she took up with a younger, sexier Magician in a failed attempt at post-carnival stardom, he now earns his keep through guilt and acting as a prompter concealed below her lectern. He has been replaced by Stan, who now wears the stripped jacket, white gloves, spins the cane, works the crowd. Stan is also Zeena's latest lover, another sexual apprentice in the ancient art of fortune telling. She's just past her prime, but nonetheless we can see that she's still a good piece, still got something. She's one of those bad ladies who's not really bad at all, just another exotic animal in the night.

Power & Blondell

Zeena has no illusions, although illusion is her act. "I'm about as reliable as a 2 dollar coronet," she says as they drive through the darkness to the next anonymous town, Pete lying in the back of the truck like a crippled dog, Stan driving. Stan wants to learn the secret of the blindfold code, start a new act outside the carnival, work the society chumps, hit the big-time. Zeena is uncertain, is considering selling the code in order to finance treatment for Pete. Still, life goes on... and she's smitten with Stan. Ever the eager learner, he persuades her to reintroduce mind-reading to the act and thus learns the blindfold code. But one day during a tryst in a hotel room, Zeena looks into the future with the help of the Tarot and sees Death as the draw for Pete. Distraught, she tells Stan that she can't abandon Pete or the carnival, head for the bright lights.

the art of trance

It's an interesting triangle with more-than-interesting implications, as the quasi-outlaw culture of the carnival draws into focus the ancient spiritual protocol of man and woman, wherein the woman is the oracle (or cipher) who reads both the past and the future, and the man is her wand, always craving divination. This is something which reaches back into paganism, yet has been politicized out of the civilized personality. Yet our fascination remains, however, with the imagery of the crystal ball, especially when combined with the erotic. It's the jaded Pete, who, in a moment of lucidity, delivers a hypno monologue while staring into the "crystal" of his whiskey bottle, in a funny yet fascinating demonstration of the art of trance as a weapon of manipulation. Again, Stan absorbs the lesson... and unknowingly, his fate.

He also starts an affair with Molly which is quickly discovered by Bruno, who forces the couple to marry by choking Stan into submission. So strange is the code of the carnival, everyone concerned accepts this shotgun judgement as fair and right -- even Stan, who actually sees this "expulsion" as a chance to become the star mentalist of his dreams, adopting Zeena's role as the blindfolded seer and using his new wife Molly as his telegrapher.

The death of Pete is an accident designed by destiny... while it might seem contrived, it's certainly plausible. As in all carefully plotted narratives, the event is both ironic and causal. Stan buys a bottle of moonshine from another carny, hides it in Zeena's prop trunk when Pete approaches... but, swayed by the broken man's desperation and willingness to divulge techniques and secrets, he opens the trunk and gives Pete the bottle. Later Pete is found dead from drinking the kerosene Zeena uses for burning the trick notes in their routine -- the bottle, identical to the moonshine bottle, was also in Zeena's trunk. Zeena's trunk... symbolism? Possibly... although we don't need it to appreciate her fatal charm.

Zeena, Zeena... perhaps we see Zeena as a victim of the allure she once held. In her grief she cries out that she'd made up her mind the previous evening to sell the secret of the blindfold code, use the money to get treatment for Pete least he ends up completely insane like the Geek... who seems to be the final tragic incarnation of all carny hustlers who mess with the occult.

Who is to blame here? The priestess who messes with her messengers, or the messenger who messes with the priestess? If the carnival was Eden, we could blame the serpent. The crystal ball, the whiskey bottle, the wounded child within... yes, we learn that Stan grew up in an orphanage, graduated from reform school. In this script, all the characters have a background to accommodate their motives. It's the psychology of American naturalism whereby a man's fate is shaped by his social environment. He's usually allowed one chance for redemption, otherwise he's sent to hell. This "born-again" psychology, so fundamental to the American experience, is always waiting in the wings in such stories as this.

|| The second half of the film concerns Stan's rise to fame as "The Great Stanton", a slick player who reads the minds of the rich and vulnerable in the Spode Room, a nightclub in Chicago's tony Hotel Sherman. Now he wears a natty black evening suit complete with tails and matching black blindfold. Wife Molly takes the questions, telegraphs the code via set phrases and voice inflections. He's absorbed Pete's actorial monologue style and Zeena's sexual karma, blending their tricks into his persona of the Scottish boy with the gift of the second sight. Why has he been chosen? He doesn't know. He's an agent of a higher being, and everyone wants a piece.

The Great Stanton

It's in the ocean liner setting of the Spode Room that he encounters the next characters to shape his fate: wealthy widow Mrs. Peabody, industrialist Ezra Grindle... and the beautiful psychologist Lillith Ritter. The attraction between Stan and Lillith is immediate, presents an interesting conurbation of the old and the new, that is, the outlaw tradition of mentalism and its modern child, institutional Freudian psychology. Lillith tries to trick the Great Stanton with the following question: "Do you think my mother will recover from her present illness?" By now Stan is so on top of his game, he immediately intuits a trick. In a ritual unmasking, he removes his blindfold, stares at the woman who will be his nemesis. Their eyes lock, a test of wills, a sexual meld. Finally Stan says he can't answer the question as her mother is dead. Is he right? Of course. Impressive? Of course. Second sight? Who knows.

within the edits

Later, when Lillith invites him to a meeting in her office, he shrugs it all off as a pragmatic guess. Their affair is conducted within the edits -- we never see them kiss or leave a bedroom together... or even share drinks and smokes in a lake-side lounge. It's a pity, as we sense there's something crazy about their relationship, just like that between Phyllis and Walter in Double Indemnity (1944), two hustlers on the road to hell. Stan discovers that Lillith records her patients' couch sessions with a concealed machine (acetate record cutter, state-of-the-art for the early forties), brutally insists that she's no different than he. Yet it's not long before Stan ends up on her couch, confessing his involvement in the death of Pete. Says Lillith, "You're completely normal... selfish and ruthless to get what you want... and when you have it, kind and gentle."

Now Stan trusts Lillith completely, just as he once did with Zeena. Mrs. Peabody wants to give him money, a radio station... Grindle outbids her, gives Stan thousands, which he passes on to Lillith for safe keeping. Lillith is quite the mover -- in one clandestine rendezvous on the lakeshore, she arrives in a speedboat. Sex is subverted to the excitement of a scam, and the millionaire Ezra Grindle is their mark. We've already seen how Stan can find the insecurity in a person when he manipulates the old Marshall who comes to shut down the carnival. Like Iago, he is a natural master of 3rd party paranoia.

While there are many good things about this film, it does have some weaknesses. The narrative is a bit hurried at times, especially at the end when Stan returns to the carnival as a broken drunken wretch. This is not unusual when a script is based on a novel, which by nature is verbalized and covers a lot of history/time. The symmetry, achieved at the expense of real Time, might appear convenient with its literary loops, even when these loops are effective. We might laugh at the stagey morality and at so many characters with hearts of gold as all this seems out of step with contemporary living, even if we sympathize with its Biblical certainty. Yet withal the ensemble flow suits the "nightmare" quality of the action, most of it internalized to night settings, so that we can easily accommodate the superstitions of the characters and the unrealistic closing sequences.

The film was a box office failure, despite being a Zanuck response to the austere docu style of the neo-realist films coming out of Italy at the time. Rock Hudson surmised that the public didn't believe it as "A man as handsome as Ty would never be reduced to eating a live chicken." [as quoted in Hector Arce's "The Secret Life of Tyrone Power"] True enough as far as the hollow theatrics of the ending go... yet somehow Power is extremely effective as the ambitious orphan loner willing to exploit the criminal edges of the occult. He has the look -- dark and handsome, like a gypsy without a toothpick. Apprenticed with Zeena, he becomes another of Satan's handsome sensualists. "Why am I like this?" he asks Lillith, alluding to his shifty penchant for using and abusing.

But as womanizers go, he is hardly the worst, as his women are merely part of his Oedipal hunger and a professional necessity. The one we know least about, really, is Lillith who is arguably the real criminal. Compared to Zeena and Molly -- neither of whom commit any crime -- she is a genuine charlatan, unable to satisfy her clients, yet willing to defraud them of their wealth and mental health. However, her liaison with the Great Stanton is ambiguous enough that we might see her as a woman trying to impress a lover who just might have the fabled gift of the second sight despite his own cynicism and dedication to the art of the hustle. Still, it takes one to catch one and while Lillith doesn't quite live up to the the Biblical implications of her name [Adam's wife before Eve was created and/or a female demon who attacks children in deserted places], we can imagine her later in life hosting a radio or TV Talk Show.

© LR 6/05


Culture Court | © Lawrence Russell | 2005