Tyrone Power was one of most dashing leading men in Hollywood history and became a massive box office draw beginning in the mid-1930s. However, after many swashbuckling Saturday matinees, musicals, and romantic dramas, he longed to do something more weighty. He used his star power to convince a skeptical Daryl Zanuck to produce a film based on a dark, disturbing, debut novel by a dark, disturbing guy named William Lindsay Gresham. The resulting film was a most atypical one both from the point of view of Power’s career and the film noir genre: 1947’s Nightmare Alley.
The plot is long and twisty, but Jules Furthman of The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not fame knew as well as any screenwriter how to keep an audience from becoming lost. Stanton Carlisle (Power) works at a carnival, assisting a couple with their low rent mind-reading act. Zeena (Joan Blondell, whose performance stands out even in this strong cast) has become the brains of the outfit due to her husband Pete’s decline into alcoholism (A sympathetic Ian Keith). Once Zeena and Peter were the toast of high society, due to a sophisticated code they developed to create the illusion of extra-sensory perception. Stanton turns his magnetic charm towards getting Zeena to teach him the code and simultaneously seducing a young beauty named Molly who also works at the carnival (Coleen Gray). He gets what he wants from both women, and he and Molly flee to the big city. They revive Zeena and Pete’s old act with tremendous success. But soon an alluring and devious psychiatrist (a delicious part deliciously played by Helen Walker) tempts Stanton into an even bigger con, which leads him to places many a film noir protagonist knows far too well.
Nightmare Alley is a punchy exploration of how ambition and greed translate into cruelty and deceit. Although not generally known as a noir director, Edmund Goulding has firm grasp of the material, and deserves credit for the uniformly strong acting. He and Power had just collaborated on the excellent The Razor’s Edge and they continue to thrive together here, making Stanton appealing and vulnerable enough that we keep caring about him even as his morality corrodes. The film also offers an unusually large array of complex, strong, women characters, all of which are well-played.
Nightmare Alley is unlike most noirs of the period, for two reasons. First, Power doesn’t look the part of the noir protagonist: he’s too handsome, too smooth, and too poised. He looks out of place in the carny scenes, but at home in the swanky scenes where he wears a tuxedo in a plush hotel ballroom. And yet, it works, because this is perhaps the best performance of Power’s career, stretching his range unlike anything he’d been in before. The fall of his character is that much more devastating precisely because he starts out looking like he has success oozing out of every pore.
The other atypical aspect of the film is that it’s one of very few big budget noirs of the period (Leave Her To Heaven being a better known example) Noirs were usually cheaply made, and indeed some of their conventions (e.g., minimal lighting) emerged in part to hide their low budgets. In contrast, this is a gorgeous looking film shot by Lee Garmes and stuffed with authentic sets, varied locations, and perfect outfits for the characters.
The only thing that bothered me about the film is that the perfect, sock you in the gut final scene became the penultimate one when Zanuck saw the rushes. The film closes instead on a more hopeful (though still dark) scene that has less psychic weight. Studio-imposed, punch pulling, final scene are commercially understandable but artistically barren (I had the same complaint about 99 River Street), particularly here when “I was made for it” is an all time noir classic line that should have closed out the story. But that’s a small complaint to have about such an accomplished piece of cinema.
Nightmare Alley didn’t do good business at release because Zanuck didn’t believe in it and because it violated audience expectations for Power and for film noir. But in the years since, it has been deservedly rediscovered as a classic of the genre and a high point of the tragically short career of Tyrone Power.