Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Nightmare Alley

[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause.]

Edmund Goulding's Nightmare Alley is a bleak, fatalistic noir, a rich and unusual examination of ambition, hypocrisy and ruin. The film is set in the world of the carnival and show business glitz, as the young carnival barker Stan (Tyrone Power) dreams of developing an act that will get him out of the low-rent carnival; he wants money and fame as a high-class night club attraction, wowing audiences with displays of psychic power and mind-reading. He sees his chance in the washed-up psychic Zeena (Joan Blondell), who had once been a famed night club performer with a flawless code system that had allowed her to stun audiences, until her partner and husband Pete (Ian Keith) was driven by her infidelities to become a drunk, no longer able to maintain the precision necessary for their act. The pair continue performing, in hobbled form, at a low-budget carnival, as Pete is kept barely stable by Zeena, even as she continues to stray. Stan — who openly admits that he thinks only of himself — worms his way in and sees Zeena on the side. Once he learns about the secret code she's guarding, of course he tries to get her to give it up to him, even as he lusts after the much younger Molly (Coleen Gray).

The film is built on a subtle structure of parallels and mirrors, as the film's first half carefully sets up the path of Stan's fated rise and fall. Stan's conversations with the drunken, no good Pete are so pointed that one senses it's only a matter of time before he winds up in the same situation. "How does a man sink so low?" someone asks early on, and the question — which will be repeated as some of the last words in the film — is the hidden driving force behind much of the action. How does a man sink so low? Through greed and cold ambition, through pushing away friends and using people for what he thinks he can get out of them. In the opening scenes of the film, Stan observes a performance by "the Geek," a carnival attraction of the basest sort, a man who degrades himself by pretending to be a subhuman brute, a monster with no thoughts who eats live chickens for the amusement and horror of the audience. Goulding stages this sequence brilliantly: the Geek is positioned at the front of the stage, hidden from view by the crowds gathered around him, and as Stan walks away, disgusted by the spectacle, a man on stage throws a pair of chickens to the brute. As the chickens squawk and squeal, the camera pans away with Stan, towards a fire-eater who blows turrets of flame into the air from his mouth. The audience begins to turn away from the Geek as well, to watch the fire-eater instead, and the moment underscores the insignificance of the degraded, unseen man. He lowers himself to the level of an animal for the momentary entertainment of a fickle crowd, and when they're satisfied with his degradation, they turn to the next spectacle, seeking the next stimulus.

That's why it's so heartbreaking when Pete and Stan discuss the Geek later, watching the man go crazy, pursued by carnival workers. Pete admits that if not for Zeena, that would be him: the Geek is just an ordinary man, a drunk who's sunk so low that he's willing to do anything for a bottle of booze, even if it means utterly debasing himself in the most humiliating and public ways. The Geek pretends to be without thoughts, without a human brain, but Pete's awareness of his own degradation, his own uselessness as a sloppy drunk, suggests that beneath his brutish surface the Geek is very much aware of what he's doing, very much aware of how low he's fallen. That only makes it all the more horrible, and Stan in particular is horrified by the Geek, as though he were seeing a creeping premonition of his own future in this debased man, a former carnival performer himself.

Stan's rise to fame occurs when he gets away from the carnival, at first not of his own free will, though he eventually realizes that he's actually gotten his big break. He brings Molly with him, and one of the film's cleverest scenes is the one where Stan concocts his newest scheme. He's thought of the idea to create a new psychic act with Molly as his partner, and a grin spreads over his face as he thinks of all the money and fame they can earn. But Molly obviously misunderstands, thinking he's happy to be with her, starting a new life with her. "Do you really mean it?" she asks breathlessly, looking at him with wide, happy eyes, and he excitedly exclaims, "yes," but there's some obvious miscommunication here. Molly's happy to be married, to be in love, but Stan is just happy to finally be on the verge of major success. He's happy he's got the girl, but only because he knows he can use her in the act, because she'll be very useful to him. The scene is staged like a conventional romantic climax, a moment of togetherness and union, but the lovers are talking past one another, seeming to say the same things but meaning something very different. The way the different meanings criss-cross in the subtext makes the scene heartrending rather than uplifting, even as the strings soar and Molly proclaims, with sappy earnestness, that she'll be a good and loyal wife to her man. It's as though the film is mocking Molly for being just another mark, just another sucker for Stan's clever patter.

It's fascinating to watch the sweet, innocent Molly hoodwinked by Stan, even as he himself gets tangled up with a calculating psychiatrist, Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who sees one of his acts and gets interested in him. The interplay between Stan and Lilith is a study in power struggles and mutual manipulation, as Stan thinks he's using the psychiatrist for her connections to wealthy society people. But, in a potent scene late in the film, the rug gets pulled out from under Stan, to the point that he begins questioning his own sanity, unsure of what's been real and what's been a con, not knowing if he's losing his mind or being brilliantly played. Goulding, ingeniously, allows the audience to wonder as well. Walker plays this scene with a hint of menace, an undercurrent of knowing manipulation, wrapped up in sincerity and bursts of seemingly genuine confusion. As the psychiatrist winds around her patient in the dark, the shadows making a cruel mask of her face, the audience is left to wonder what's truth and what's lies — to think back on what had already happened and wonder if there had been an elaborate long con running, and if so where the deceit had begun, how far back the web of lies stretched. The uncertainty places the viewer into Stan's position, concocting paranoid conspiracy theories, lost in the dark, feeling used and betrayed.

This is Stan's comeuppance, one explanation for how a man can get so low, how a man becomes the Geek. It is, in some ways, a divine justice, a form of destiny or punishment from above: the film's script is full of allusions to destiny, to the magic of the Tarot deck, and to God and the Christian Bible. There is an increasingly religious fervor to Stan's psychic performances, as he puts his audiences in touch with dead relatives and uses the rhetoric of the church pulpit as fodder for entertainment and spectacle. To him, religion is just another con, and Molly, growing afraid as he crosses the blurry line from entertainer to con artist, begs him not to invoke the wrath of God by playing the role of a spiritualist. But Stan has a literalist's understanding of religion; he believes, or tries to convince Molly that he believes, that because he never explicitly mentions God, then he is free of blasphemy. It's as though he's even trying to con God, to sneak by on a technicality. In the end, though, as Stan semi-consciously falls lower and lower until he's mirroring first Pete and then the lowly Geek, the film suggests that there's no way to con destiny, no way to avoid the inevitable and awful descent into pathetic ruin.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Excellent analysis of an incredibly disturbing movie. Power was at the height of his fame when he chose to make this one, to prove he could "really act." And man does he ever! Contemporary "edgy" performers like DeNiro and Gisling would do well to study this one closely. And Edmund Goulding -- a director whose career high are all over the map in terms of "mainstream" drama -- really pushes the envelope with this one.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, David. Power is fantastic in this, he's a big part of what makes this character's descent so enthralling and horrifying.

Sam Juliano said...

You provide a splendidly comprehensive delineation of plot and the very essence of this extraordinary noir, one that deserves high placement on any survey of the form. The real "star" of this film is cinematographer Lee Garmes, whose expressionistic, low key work is vital is transcribing this defining study of entrapment, and the suspense is heightened by an eerie score by Cyril Mockridge. Against hype, Power is superlative, and as much as any film noir, the characters are obsessed with achieving success at all costs. This is just about as corrosive a film noir as has ever been made.

Ed Howard said...

I'm glad you brought up Garmes, Sam. The cinematography in this film is simply gorgeous — check out that shot I posted above from the "ghost" sequence — and his work goes a long way towards establishing the film's moody, evocative aesthetic. It's a visually sumptuous film without being quite as visually showy as some other more stylized noirs.

Tinky said...

This isn't even my kind of movie at all, yet your description (along with those stunning photos)really makes me want to see it. Well done.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Tinky. I hope you enjoy it if you do check it out.

Vanwall said...

Great write-up! One of my favorite films, and think what the shock this film must've had on the audiences of the time - they'd had Powers built up as a certain kind of actor, and her he was being nothin of the kind!

I posted about this film's relationship to my growing up, and the carny visions I feared.

Poor Stan

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Vanwall. I always love to imagine how some of the especially gritty and intense noirs — the ones that are still bracing today, like this one — must have impacted the audiences of their own time when the films were fresh.

I'll have to check out your article now, sounds great.

Shubhajit said...

Amazing review of a gem of a film noir, Ed. Yeah, it is fatalistic, bleak, and rich with imagery and ironies, all the way.

"The film is built on a subtle structure of parallels and mirrors...", that sort of perfectly captures the symbolism and structure of the film.

It also, in true fashion of an archetypal noir, magnificently captured the meteoric rise of an overtly ambitious but morally corrupt protagonist, and his journey back to square one - a journey that forms the very essence, the very basis of most quintessential film noirs.

You really can't escape comeuppance, as you suggested, does form the strongest theme for this exceptional, albeit underrated, movie.

Mykal Banta said...

Ed: Loved your breakdown of Goulding's work on this film - how he allows the audiance to wonder, etc., without a heavy hand. I have always loved this film's ability to make me feel as though I was sinking down right along with Stan. Also, the absolute terror Goulding is able to make one feel about the very concept of "Geek" is very impressive. Such a horrible nearly-inhuman descent.

I remember reading or hearing somewhere that Power took the role of Stan in an effort to be taken more seriously as an actor, or at least to make a film of great substance (perhaps a commentary track? I can't remember). He certainly grabbed a bit of Noir history with this one.

Nice job!

gmoke said...

The book by William Gresham is at least as worthy of attention as the film. Gresham's ex-wife, Joyce, later married CS Lewis, for an exceedingly weird set of connections.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Shubhajit. Like so many great noirs, this one is about the rise and fall of a man who will do anything to get what he wants - and instead fate, the engine of the noir, destroys him.

Mykal, great point about how the film subtly aligns us with Stan so that we can feel his descent more sharply, almost as though it's happening to us. I've heard that about Power too (including further up in this comment thread) and it certainly worked: he's really impressive in this.

Gmoke, thanks for mentioning the book. I'll have to check it out one of these days.

john_burke100 said...

It's a terrific movie, though the script is marred, I think, by the "square-up" ending, with Power saved from the last tumble into geekdom by reuniting with Molly. But Ian Keith ("Every boy has a dog") is a wonder.

Has anyone else noted that one crucial dynamic--the sinister female psychiatrist who colludes with the con man but ends by betraying him, is a key element in David Mamet's "House of Games"?

Ed Howard said...

John, I don't read the ending as optimsitically as you do. At best, Stan seems to have fallen into the position of Pete at the beginning of the film, becoming a kind of kept man rescued from oblivion by a woman who cares for him. He'll be saved from Geek-dom, for now at least, but the future doesn't exactly look rosy.

Charles J. Sperling said...


I've seen "Nightmare Alley" three times, and between the second and third viewings, I read William Lindsay Gresham's book. (You can find it separately now, courtesy of the New York Review of Books imprint, or as part of the Library of America's *Crime Novels of the 1930s and 1940s* collection, where Gresham shares space with James M. Cain,Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Kenneth Fearing and Cornell Woolrich.)

The first sentence mirrors the last -- the final word in both is "geek" -- and Molly's return in the movie I expected to find a cop-out. Instead, as you pointed out so well, the essence of the ending is there: if Stan hasn't become the geek, he's become Pete, and lovely as Molly is, she's not as strong as Zeena.

I salute you for saying it so much more economically!

Helen Walker has another great noir role as Mr. Brown's discarded wife in "The Big Combo."

john_burke100 said...

I have to confess I hadn't thought of reading the ending of "Nightmare Alley" this way, but it's certainly plausible. (I haven't read the novel.) The "darker" interpretation--that Stan was headed for the very bottom but is saved at the last instant by Molly--is sort of prepared by his line "Brother, I was made for it!" when the carny boss offers him the geek job. (The line echoes his earlier brash claims.) And this wouldn't be the first, or last, time a studio demanded a square-up to shelter a big star's image. Alternatively, as Ed and Charles suggest, it makes sense that where's Stan's headed isn't the enclosure with the chickens, but the life of weak dependency that Pete led with Zeena. Still, the parallelism isn't exact: Zeena mothers Pete by way of atoning for her infidelity, whereas Stan betrayed Molly, not the other way around, so presumably he "deserves" worse punishment than Pete. I think the script suports both interpretations, which is fine by me.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Charles, for the info on the book - interesting that the mirrored structure with regard to the Geek is in the book as well, since the parallels of Pete, Stan and the Geek are so central to the film version.

John, you are probably right that the return of Molly is a glossy Hollywood idea and that the natural (and much bleaker) tendency of the story would be for Stan to really become the Geek at the end. But as Hollywood square-ups go, this one is plenty dark and ambiguous, not at all betraying the themes and resonances of the rest of the story. Stan's become Pete by the end of the film, but as you say, without the "excuse" of his girl's infidelity to justify his weakness.

Trish said...

Wow. Thank you, Ed. I love this movie. When Power is sporting his insincere twinkle and white t-shirt, I forget about all the tuxedo and swashbuckler roles he's had. So he loses me when he gets back into the monkey suit for a while. Still, Nightmare Alley is the best thing he's ever done, and I watch it every time I get a chance.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Trish. Power really does a great job with this complex but nasty character.