Nightmare Alley (1947) is a classic of film noir horror, based on a 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. The novel was populated by the seediest carnies, hustlers & grifters.
As material for a film, it did not seem to be something that would fit Tyrone Power. who was at the time a giant as a Hollywood leading man with all the glamor-boy limitations that implied.
Along with director Edmund Goulding, Tyrone pursued both Nightmare Alley, & Razor's Edge (1946), to show he was a hard-hitting serious actor, not just a guy who looked great in period costumes, doing noble deeds, & winning the girl in the end.
Stan (Tyrone) is a carny who has a phobia about the Geek in the geek show. He otherwise loves lording it over local yokals & fellow carnies as barker & entertainer.
Stan pretends to admire Zeena (Joan Blondell) the carnival's fortune-teller. In reality he admires only her act, performed with her husband, a rummy named Pete (Ian Keith).
Zeena developed a verbal code with which she can appear to be an actual mentalist. At one time she & her husband had been very successful, but it appears that she used to be rather unfaithful, & Pete descended into alcoholism. Hence their downfall, stuck in the lowliest of travelling carnivals.
She's refused large sums of money for the act. She hopes one day to retire, however, & at that time expects to sell the secrets of the act for a tidy sum.
The main cast is rounded out by Molly (Coleen Gray), the real beauty of the carnival, who is involved with Bruno (Mike Mazurki), the thuggish Hercules figure.
Zeena's been trying to save Pete from the bottle. But Stan undermines her attempts, because he wants possession of the mentalist act. Pete dies in the night, having imbibed deeply of a bottle of wood alcohol. It will remain an undetected murder.
After Pete's death, Zeena finally teaches Stan the verbal code for the mentalist act. Having gotten from her exactly what he wanted, he quickly throws her over for Molly the young beauty.
His greatest skill is his capacity to seem mesmerizingly sincere & honest, without regard for the fact that he's neither. Billed as "the Great Stanton," he with Molly assisting breaks out of carnival life & made it to niteclubs.
Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), a wealthy & lovely young Chicago psychoanalyst, was impressed with the act & becomes fascinated by Stan's psychology of charlatanism.
Her profession means she knows a great deal about the secret lives of wealthy neurotics. What could he do combining his skill posing as a mentalist if he had access to her knowledge?
His act becomes increasingly about the occult. As a spiritualist he puts the griefstricken in touch with their dearly departed. Lilith feeds him all he needs to hornswoggle the wealthy & the gullible.
At the height of his con, Molly blows the act out of sheer guilt & pity. Unmasked for what he is, Stan has to flee town in a hurry.
So begins his rapid descent. He discovers Lilith has robbed him of his ill-gotten funds. She pulls his own routine on him & breaks down his will. She becomes one of the spookiest femme fatales of all cinema.
When it dawns on him belatedly he really does love Molly, he can't do much about it, as he has to go into hiding with the police after him.
He turns to alcohol for solace, clearly on the road Pete took. He could even be headed for the job of carnival geek -- a wino who earns his next bottle horrifying the public by biting the head off a live chicken.
It's a wonderful movie which is never outright supernatural but plays with ideas of Fate that approach the uncanny.
The level of acting makes the story shockingly brutal in its psychology. Whether viewed as a horror film or as a film noir mystery, it's intensity & edginess makes it terrific, as well as grim, grim, grim.
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