Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, and Helen Walker in Nightmare Alley (1947)


(director: Edmund Goulding; screenwriters: from the book “Nighmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham/Jules Furthman; cinematographer: Lee Garmes; editor: Barbara McLean; music: Cyril Mockridge; cast: Tyrone Power (Stanton Carlisle), Joan Blondell (Zeena), Coleen Gray (Molly), Helen Walker (Dr. Lilith Ritter), Taylor Holmes (Ezra Grindle), Ian Keith (Pete), Mike Mazurki (Bruno), James Flavin (Hoatley, Carnival Owner), Julia Dean (Mrs. Peabody), Roy Roberts (McGraw), James Burke (Town Marshal), George Beranger (Geek); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: George Jessel; 20th Century Fox; 1947)

“A cult classic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Nightmare Alley is an oddity from Hollywood that falls short of reaching greatness because it puts the brakes on the sleaze in the name of tastefulness, nevertheless it still delivers a tough-minded melodrama in its look at the seamy side of carnival life. It tells of the rise of a small-time hustler and his eventual fall, which is explained by a carnival owner named McGraw because “he has reached too high.” Hollywood pretty boy and star of many an empty costume drama, Tyrone Power, had his heart set on being in more meaningful films, so he bought the rights to the lurid bestseller novel by William Lindsay Gresham and talked a reluctant Darryl Zanuck into letting him go against type and play a heel. Zanuck got George Jessel to be the producer and made the strange choice of Edmund Goulding (“Grand Hotel”), someone known mostly for classy dramas, to be the director–whose effort turned out better than one would think. Jules Furthman provided the screenplay. Power received very favorable reviews from the critics at the time, and Nightmare Alley has since become considered as a cult classic that regrettably does not appear on television with any regularity.

Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) has advanced from being raised in an orphanage to being placed in a reform school to fast talking his way into being a sideshow barker for the fake mentalist act of Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her rummy husband Pete (Ian Keith). They were once a big-time act, but are now stuck in a second-rate traveling carnival, currently in the Chicago area, due to her infidelity which drove her hubby to drink. Stanton has an affair with Zeena, uses his street-smarts to stop a hick marshal from closing the show and arresting the performers, and accidentally murders Pete by giving him a bottle of wood alcohol used in the act instead of the intended moonshine. When he’s spotted with a performer in an “electricity” act, Molly (Coleen Gray), her protector, the strongman Bruno, forces Stanton to do the right thing and marry her. The ambitious cad learned the valuable “blindfold word code” from has-been Zeena, and leaves the carnival circuit to appear in top nightclubs as he partners with Molly–billing himself as “The Great Stanton.” Still ambitious to make more money, the fake spiritualist comes into contact with a cold-hearted psychologist named Dr. Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker). She provides him with personal info from the sessions with her more wealthy clients, and he plays on their vulnerabilities to act as a spiritualist to cheat them out of money. Things fall apart for Stanton when Molly can’t go through with deceiving a wealthy client (Taylor Holmes) about presenting herself as the image of his deceased loved one, and they split up. Stanton, after cheated out of his money by the even more ruthless Ritter, becomes a hobo alcoholic and eventually returns to a different traveling carnival to take a job he swore he never would take–the carnival “geek,” a popular freak-show attraction who eats live chickens in order to get a handout, shelter and booze.

Tyrone Power’s downfall is shocking, and even though he’s a ruthless scam artist–he’s pictured as deserving of some sympathy. The shadowy photography by Lee Garmes sets the appropriate bleak mood, while Cyril Mockridge’s tense score brings out the bizarre undercurrents that underline the film. It’s a fascinating film noir, accurately getting to the phonies and gullible folks who are drawn to the carnival atmosphere. It shows off Power in perhaps his finest performance (though, I can see why some might have preferred his saintly performance in “The Razor’s Edge” – 1946).