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Nightmare Alley

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MissGoddess
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Postby MissGoddess » June 11th, 2007, 3:28 pm

Had a little trouble logging on today, so I actually posted this first at the Other Forum:

I finally saw this film on Friday. This has to be one of the most unpredictable movies I have ever seen in any genre. I really could not guess what would happen next or how Tyrone Power's "Stan" was going to react to any given situation. He's not only the most complicated guy he ever played, he's one of the most complex characters I've ever come across. I will have to see it again one day, maybe with the commentary, to pick up some things I may have missed but I am so glad I did make a point of watching it after all these years.

Power may have been the master of the classic era at playing ambivalent men. I had expected Stanton to be a really evil, nasty guy based on what so many people have said about the film, but he's not at all that easy to pigeon-hole. He does have some likable, quite humane moments so I couldn't say for sure that this was a "villainous" role.

Of course it almost goes without saying that Joan Blondell was terrific and so was the actor who played, Pete, her tragic husband.

And I wasn't expecting that ending. At all. But I was relieved by it.

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Nightmare Alley

Postby moira finnie » June 11th, 2007, 5:02 pm

I'm so glad that you had a chance to see this great movie, Miss G. I hope that you'll have a chance to see it more than once, since I've found repeated viewings to be highly interesting rather than boring, as one might expect with the average Hollywood product of that time.

I agree about the performance of Joan Blondell, who, at a turning point in her career, played a realistic yet gallant character who looked at the tawdry world and her own flaws and strengths with an understandably jaundiced eye.

"Pete, her tragic husband" was remarkably played by Ian Keith (perhaps best remembered by TCMers as John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith's static Abraham Lincoln. The haunting Keith is the most compelling figure in that early talkie movie, imho, upstaging even the great Walter Huston, who seems stultified by his role as The Great Emancipator). When I saw his performance in Nightmare Alley, I couldn't help but wonder how much Keith might've invested this pitiless portrait with his own real life knowledge of the dark side of the entertainment business through observation of his co-workers or his first hand knowledge of the personal humiliation experienced by every journeyman actor in that sometimes seamy, very tough profession.

Not to be overlooked either is Colleen Gray, who, as a contract player at 20th Century Fox, really wasn't given the opportunities she deserved to develop, despite her presence in noirs like Kiss of Death, The Sleeping City and this flick. I particularly like her work in the scene in which she is trying to refuse to be involved in one of Power's more complex schemes. In a scene with alot of dialogue, it's her face that really expresses a faith in Power, all the while clinging to some inner sense of a shred of ethics, but then she half-realizes her own weakness and descends into self-disgust. The girl deserved better as an actress.

Of course, I've blathered on about Helen Walker's remarkable performance rather alot over in TCMland, so I won't inflict any rhapsodies about her acting in this film on you here. She's the berries, as is Tyrone Power, who, as you accurately describe, is at his personal, dual-edged, self-aware best here. My respect for the actor's intelligence and ability increases each time I've seen this movie. If only something of comparable quality could've followed it...

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Postby Dewey1960 » June 11th, 2007, 10:46 pm

NIGHTMARE ALLEY has always struck me as the most "perfect imperfect film" of its time. Which is to say that it comes as close to capturing the horror and the insanity of William Lindsay Gresham's novel as any 1947 film possibly could. But I've always speculated (to myself) about how differently NIGHTMARE ALLEY might have turned out if Orson Welles had directed it. Can you imagine?

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Postby moira finnie » June 12th, 2007, 12:03 am

But I've always speculated (to myself) about how differently NIGHTMARE ALLEY might have turned out if Orson Welles had directed it. Can you imagine?


Yes, Dewey, it would've been different with Welles behind the camera instead of Goulding, but I doubt if it would've been better. I haven't read the original novel based on Gresham's first hand knowledge of carnival life, but the more lurid, nightmarish qualities of the film seem well-balanced by the strangely dreamlike, air of the film as well. This quality seems to pervade that sequence in the boat when Tyrone Power colludes with Helen Walker about her patients, the scene when Coleen Gray and Power separate when we see the back of Power's head through much of the brief dialogue, and when Power--just for a moment--acknowledges with a look that passes across his face, that even he believes that he has something like second sight.

I know that Orson Welles often excelled at showing life's masks, enjoying showing our illusions and delusions, though he could sometimes be terribly self-indulgent as well, imho. Edmund Goulding seems underrated to me, often dismissed as simply a commercial studio director of that period. His films may not bear the stamp of one man's artistic vision, but they do contain just a thread of something like a search for meaning while they entertain. He was a craftsman with a soul too.

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Postby Dewey1960 » June 12th, 2007, 12:46 am

Moira wrote: "His (Goulding's) films may not bear the stamp of one man's artistic vision, but they do contain just a thread of something like a search for meaning while they entertain. He was a craftsman with a soul too."

Hi there, Moira. Therein lies the crux of the point I was trying to make. Goulding injected a bit more of his instinctively genteel nature into NIGHTMARE ALLEY than it required. Gresham's brilliant and distrubing novel is devoid of anything remotely recognizable as compassion or soul. It is a story shrouded in perversion and violence. The film that Goulding ultimately delivered danced uncomfortably on the edge of uncertainty. It's been recounted, incidentally, that George Jessel (who produced the film for Fox), convinced Daryl Zanuck to buy the rights to the novel without actually having read it. Zanuck complied and became furious after he read it, claiming they would never get this thing past the censors. Please don't misunderstand me, though: I love this film. But I also mourn the absence of the dark and grotesque vision that a director with a much firmer grasp of the lurid and utterly macabre could have brought to this unholy tale.

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Postby MissGoddess » June 12th, 2007, 8:13 am

Thank you, Moira, for filling me in on Ian Keith (any relation to Robert and Brian?)---he was a great actor I can see by this film and it's a pity that he doesn't seem to have gotten many juicy roles like that one. At least that I've noticed so far.

Helen Walker was a pipperoo. Hers was another character I wasn't quite sure of---I knew she rotten but I wasn't sure how far she'd go. Personally, I think she was fantastic as a therapist with "issues" of her own (of which ilk I have vast experience).

Dewey---I gather by your posts that the novel was really "nightmarish" in comparison to the film, but from my own perspective the movie is surrounded by a darkness that constantly threatens to take over the lives of the individuals in it. I've never really liked carnivals, having a sort of distrust and fear of them since I was a kid, but I do feel compassionate toward those who drifted into them because of having nowhere else to go. For my money, Edmund Goulding took it far enough, any darker and I don't think I could have finished watching it! :o

feaito

Postby feaito » June 12th, 2007, 8:47 am

This film must contain Tyrone Power's best performance ever. I was really impressed by the movie after watching it for the first time. It's one of my "discovered" treasures in my DVD collection. The "geek" issue gave me the creeps, honestly. The plot is so absorbing and all the actors perform their roles with great skill, especially Power, Walker, Blondell and Mr. Keith.

Ian Keith is one of those actors who graced with his presence many, many films over the years. I especially recall with much pleasure his impersonation of Saladin in the amusing De Mille Epic "The Crusades". He acted in many Silents too. I'm not sure if I have watched any of the Silents he was featured in.

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Postby Dewey1960 » June 12th, 2007, 8:48 am

MissGoddess wrote: "I gather by your posts that the novel was really "nightmarish" in comparison to the film, but from my own perspective the movie is surrounded by a darkness that constantly threatens to take over the lives of the individuals in it...For my money, Edmund Goulding took it far enough, any darker and I don't think I could have finished watching it!"

Yes, that's right. The book, which I first read while still in high school before ever seeing the film, is genuinely shocking and full of material which never could have been filmed by a Hollywood studio in 1947. Given your comments, I would not recommend it to you! And I suppose that's part of the (small) problem I have with the film ultimately. By the time I got around to seeing it on television some years later, I found myself somewhat let down by it. The film works remarkably well considering the censorship obstacles it had to contend with. But watching it today (I've seen it many times) only reminds me of the missed cinematic opportunities that could have transformed it into the 9th Wonder of the World!

As for Goulding, the popular conjecture as to why he was picked to direct NIGHTMARE ALLEY in the first place has more to do with the fact that he and Power had recently worked together on RAZOR'S EDGE and got along quite well. Fox, nervous about their appealing star taking on such a risky project was more concerned with keeping him comfortable on the set.

What I personally find most amazing about NIGHTMARE ALLEY is, that after 60 years it still has the power to entertain and jolt (even if only by a fraction of its source material) as well as inspire passionate conversation.

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Postby moira finnie » June 12th, 2007, 8:54 am

I guess we'll have to differ a bit in our mutual appreciation for Nightmare Alley, Dewey. Your evaluation of its flaws seems to reflect much of the critical literature I've come across about this movie too.

However, I like the restraint showed in the film, preventing it from going over the cliff into the grotesque and allowing the viewer to fill in the more grotesque elements of the film with his or her imagination. It seems to make the story more accessible to the wider audience without stinting on the darker elements completely. It also kept the production code boys from completely popping their corks as well. "Tasteful" is so often a pejorative term nowadays, but I still find it of value.

Btw, I've also read that Georgie Jessel didn't read "Nightmare Alley" before buying the movie rights either, (then again I think it's possible that Jessel didn't read, period. Maybe a studio "reader" wreaked revenge for his or her low status in the studio food chain by hailing this story as ripe for the movies to the quadruple threat singer-composer-comedian-producer).

Darryl Zanuck, as you probably know, thought that this film was an abomination, but he was sort of compelled to make it, since Tyrone Power insisted that he was due this choice of material under his new postwar contract, especially after having played ball like a good boy for so many years for 20th Century Fox, appearing in numerous profitable but insipid tales. Of course, that didn't stop the mogul from burying Nightmare Alley in second run theatres or featuring it as the bottom half of double features. It is said that Zanuck was responsible for pulling the film from distribution, but that's only part of the story that I've read--he just didn't help it any.

Btw, Nightmare Alley was shown on broadcast tv when I was a small child in the '60s, 'cause I remember seeing this doozie as well as last night's feature on TCM, Caged. Nice kiddie fare, eh? That's probably one reason why the "scary" aspects of the film seem pretty dang vivid to me still after all these years. I've no idea where the guiding, and generally restrictive hands of my parents on the tv dial were when my elder siblings insisted that we watch these movies in Mom & Dad's absence. Guess I was intrigued by my brother and sisters' idea of forbidden fruit though. Oh, yeah, we were bad... :wink:

A couple of terrific sources for further info on this movie, if anyone reading this is interested--are:

Nightmare Alley: Beyond the Bs by Clive T. Miller, which is an essay in the book Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System. This book, edited by Todd Flynn & Charles McCarthy is a great anthology about the subject.

Hollywood Cameraman by Charles Higham, who includes an amusing and revelatory interview with the brilliant cameraman of Nightmare Alley, Lee Garmes.

Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox, edited by Rudy Behlmer. This one limns the arc of Zanuck's career as a big wheel. The mogul's storytelling and moneymaking instincts occasionally conflicted wildly, but yielded some fine, highly entertaining commercial films with a strong element of what now seems a tame social conscience as well.

Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory by Matthew Kennedy, which is a marvel of well researched material and a balanced look at the director's mysterious, profligate life and complex character. Goulding, who never completely seems to have understood or completely fulfilled his own promise, still managed to produce some powerful commercial entertainments, (i.e. Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, Claudia), and two fascinating, flawed films, (The Razor's Edge & Nightmare Alley).

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Postby MissGoddess » June 12th, 2007, 9:57 am

Thank you for the reading list, Moira, I may check out the books on Zanuck and Goulding one day soon.

Dewey---one question, was Stanton's character in the book a lot worse than he is in the movie? Because he actually seemed less of a villain than I was prepared to think him. I'm just wondering if the brief moments showing his more humane side were added by the writers or are from the original novel.

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Postby Dewey1960 » June 12th, 2007, 10:40 am

MissG asked: "Dewey---one question, was Stanton's character in the book a lot worse than he is in the movie?"

Yes, much more calculating and insidious, not at all sympathetic. And I believe you're right; the film made every effort to soften his character in an attempt to make it more palatable for audiences.
By the way, I heartily second Moira's recommendation of the book "Kings of the B's." It's by far one of the best collections of film essays with a particular emphasis on film noir. It's out of print, but worth the effort to locate. You might try Amazon or eBay.

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Postby MissGoddess » June 12th, 2007, 11:23 am

Thanks very much, Dewey, for answering. It's what I suspected.

And I'll add that book to my list. :D

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Re: Nightmare Alley

Postby ken123 » February 10th, 2010, 3:45 pm

Did the Lillith character have a bisexual aspect ?

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Re: Nightmare Alley

Postby Dewey1960 » February 10th, 2010, 5:20 pm

Lilith, with regard to her insalubrious carnality--alluded to in The Seductress but expanded upon in the Talmud sans unspecific metaphors--as the demoness assuming the form of a woman in order to sexually take men by force while they sleep. She didn't need a bisexual aspect.

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Re: Nightmare Alley

Postby pvitari » June 24th, 2010, 2:21 pm

Speaking of Nightmare Alley... I just screencapped the entire movie.

As for Lilith, while she may get into bed on occasion, I don't think it's sex that interests her so much as power and money. :) And taking Stan down more than just a notch, because he's begging for a fall.

Here. Enjoy. Then go to http://paulasmoviepage.shutterfly.com/ to see the rest of the screencaps! ;) Scroll down past my usual blather to get to the albums. There are five albums for Nightmare Alley.

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