Matinee idol Tyrone Power became Twentieth Century Fox’s biggest star playing both the cocky young man with more ambition than experience and the earnest, hard scrabble kid oozing sincerity. Nightmare Alley (1947) brilliantly plays up and plays off his strengths and his legacy.
The film opens and closes on the dregs of a two-bit carnival. In between we follow Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Tyrone Power) from easy-going drifter to opportunistic carnie to high society con man in a rise and fall tale turned into one of the most offbeat examples of film noir. He finds a family among the carny folk and gets a charge pulling one over on the rubes of their small town circuit. When he connives a mind-reading act from a rummy has-been, he takes it out of the sideshow and into high society nightclubs with comely young wife Molly (Coleen Gray). Stan, however, has bigger plans and teams up with a calculating psychiatrist (Helen Walker) to scam the gullible rich.
Tyrone Power’s self-conscious screen persona perfectly fits his character, leaning into the hustler side and playing the earnestness as an angle to reel in the marks. Coleen Gray is film noir’s baby-faced innocent. Not exactly naïve, thanks to eye-opening years working the sideshow, she embodies both innocence and experience as Stan’s conscience. Joan Blondell is all heart as the sideshow mind reader who mentors Stan, Mike Mazurki is the strongman who plays protective big brother to Molly, and Walker proves herself just as ruthlessly cunning and even more corrupt than Stan.
It’s a disreputable pulp noir with an A budget and it straddles the chasm between sleaze and class, thanks to the vivid cinematography by Lee Garmes and the oddly interesting miscasting of studio stalwart Edmund Goulding as director. He delivers the energy and kicked-around characters of a disreputable carny midway—he even batters Power’s matinee idol looks in his spiral into dead-eyed derelict—but the studio gloss resists the depths suggested in Jules Furthman’s screenplay (behold the Geek!). It only adds to the weird atmosphere.
Power’s cocksure presence and mannered performance is perfect for this glib phony whose entire life is a show, and it only makes his rapid slide to degradation all the more satisfying… and even a little tragic.
Guillermo Del Toro offers his take on the William Lindsay Gresham novel in his 2021 remake.
Black and white, not rated.
Leaves Criterion Channel at the end of January. Add to watchlist
Criterion Channel presents supplements from the special edition disc release, including commentary featuring film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver and interviews with actor Coleen Gray, critic Imogen Sara Smith, and performer and historian Todd Robbins.
Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Nightmare Alley (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Nightmare Alley (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
Nightmare Alley (Fox Film Noir) [DVD]
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The Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD releases features 4K digital master, beautifully transferred from studio vault materials, plus commentary by film historians and film noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini from the earlier 2005 DVD release, an interview with actress Colleen Gray originally recorded for Noir City 2007, and interview featurettes with film critic Imogen Sara Smith and sideshow performer and historian Todd Robbins, plus a booklet.