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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "You're a perfectly normal human being",
Tyrone Power uses his stunning looks to great effect in Nightmare Alley, a strange, rather dark film that explores the issues of providence, destiny, and fate. Excitingly gaudy, as well as unadulteratingly polished, Nightmare Alley takes us behind-the-scenes of a sleazy circus carnival, and shows us the terrible consequences that can result from the unbridled and rampant quest for power and money.
The early sequences of this film are nearly ageless in introducing the carnival world of marks and rubes, Gypsy fortune-tellers, unintelligent strongmen, and the unseen geek - a broken-down alcoholic who bites the heads off live chickens for a daily bottle of booze and a place to sleep it off. He does this while the conniving drifter Ray Stanton (Tyrone Power) looks on, plotting and scheming his next move.
Ray is a dashingly sexy carnival newcomer who desperately wants to become a fake clairvoyant and spiritualist. He works with Zeena (Joan Blondell), a mind reader, and her drunken husband Pete (Ian Keith). Zeena and her husband had once developed a priceless code that allowed them to do a first-class act in Vaudeville, but now Pete is too drunk to pull it off.
Ray is determined to get hold of the code, and one night tries to get Pete so drunk that he'll fess up with the secret. Pete eventually dies in an accident that is partly caused by Stan. With Pete now out of the way, Stan moves up to the big time, learning the code and working with Zeena. But Stan has fallen in love with Molly (Colleen Gray), the strongman Bruno's (Mike Mazurki) girlfriend. Stan and Molly run away together and get a job working as a mind reading mentalist in a ritzy Chicago nightclub.
During one of their acts, Stan meets an unscrupulous, and unethical psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who has been surreptitiously recording the sessions of her most wealthy clients. Stan talks her into working with him and together they plan even larger swindles, setting out to milk the town's richest and most powerful out of their cash. Stan is obviously drawn to Lilith but he remains haunted and even feels responsible for Pete's death.
When Zeena comes to visit and she reads his taro cards, she sees nothing but death and madness. Stan initially scoffs at all her hocus-pocus, but then his past begins to catch up with him. Becoming increasingly more paranoid, Ray seeks help with Lilith; she initially tries to talk him out of his madness. But is she as benevolent and compassionate as she seems? Because this is film noir, a terrible fate awaits Ray, and in the end, his life and career fall apart in the most insidious, furtive, and menacing way.
Power is absolutely superlative in this role, using his palpable physical beauty to create a character that is so obviously a greedy, avaricious, and unscrupulous user. In one instance, Lilith tells him that there's nothing inherently wrong with him: "You're a perfectly normal human being," she remarks. "Selfish and ruthless when you want something, kind and generous when you've got it."
Because Ray is intrigued and almost obsessed with the circus geek, their fates become almost intertwined, even after he has left the sleazy life of the circus behind him and become the darling of the society set. Zeena warns him to stay on track and to not become so greedy and covetous, but Ray's lust and unstoppable appetite for money and fame eventually get the better of him. Fate has dictated that no matter how triumphant and successful Stan becomes, he is preordained to have an almost calamitous fall.
Nightmare Alley is a beautifully realized, gorgeously lit, and absolutely seductive example of 40's noir. It is a must for Tyrone Power fans, and he gives one of his best performances as the steely, suave, and urbane Ray Stanton, a smooth, devilish, and totally sexy confidence trickster, who can charm, seduce, and out-talk almost anybody. Mike Leonard July 05.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tough-minded and tawdry: A first-rate noir,
This is the rise and fall of a smooth-talking con man, played out in a tacky carnival sideshow, a ritzy Chicago nightclub and back to freak alley. Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is a two-bit opportunist, always on the lookout for a main chance, earning his keep in a mind-reading carnival sideshow act assisting Zeena, the mind-reader (Joan Blondell) and her lush of a husband. Carlyle can talk anybody out of just about anything, whether it's the secret code to fool the rubes from Zeena, the virginity from a young girl whom he is forced to marry (Coleen Gray) or the will to close down the show from a small town sheriff.
Carlisle reaches for the big-time, makes it and almost keeps it. But as they say, he reached too far. His mind-reading act is a big hit in Chicago, but the spook racket -- spiritualism -- looks even richer. From fooling the rubes its only a small step to stretching the law...and then stepping over the line. He hooks up with a classy psychologist, Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who turns out to be just as corrupt as he is. When the law comes looking, he finds out she is harder, more ruthless and just as willing to manipulate things as he fancied he was. He winds up just another carney drunk, grateful for a bottle and the worst job in the place.
When he was talking late one night with Pete Krumbein, Zeena's husband, before he made his big play for success, they watched the carnival's geek go crazy, running and screaming across the empty midway. "I remember that fella when he first showed up here," Pete says. "Who was he?" Carlisle asks. "He used to be plenty big-time." "Mental act?" "What difference does it make? He's cold smoked meat now. Just a bottle-a-day rumdum. He thinks his job's heaven as long as he has his bottle a day and a dry place to sleep it off in." They both know what the geek's job is...biting the heads off live chickens before a paying crowd.
This is a first-rate movie with a second-rate ending. The movie is tough-minded noir, with some terrific performances. Tyrone Power oozes cheap charm like hair oil. Helen Walker turns in a number that is fascinating, cold and unnerving. "I think you're a perfectly normal human being," she tells Carlisle. "Selfish and ruthless when you want something, generous and kindly when you've got it." What makes the movie work so well is the strong story. It grabs you at the start and keeps you with it...but then there's the ending. Hollywood often needs redemption, and that's what Hollywood gave the film story. Don't get me wrong; this remains a first-class noir. But do your self another favor (the first is to watch this film). Find a copy of the book, Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. It'll knock you back when you read it. There's no redemption in the book.
The DVD picture looks very good.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars one of the best film noirs, truly terrifying and sad,
This is the story of an orphaned youth, played by Power, who is determined to make it even though he has nothing. Working in a cheap road show, he charms his colleagues, seduces someone who can teach him a special trick, and puts together an act that will bring him into the big time. But he is haunted by the geek, an alcoholic who is hired to bite the heads off of chickens and lizards. There is another alcoholic, the companion of the woman teaching him, who also concerns him. FOr a long time, his career works, allowing him to enter the top tier of New York society. He married a beautiful girl from the carny, who performs perfectly as his assistant and they are deeply in love. Of course, things don't work out.
This is so good that it is like a psychological drama. In a way, I hesitate to call it a film noir, but that is the category it is in. I warmly recommend this film. It is of superior quality.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I Ain't No Geek Dad.,
Few films have had such a powerful effect on me, than when I first watched this film on TV many years ago. It was treacly dark and scary. My Father, who had a cruel streak at times, even warned me that if I misbehaved I would end up as "The Geek". Thanks Dad! The meaning of this word is very different to today's generation. The Geek was originally a performer who opened travelling freak shows in early America, which often involved him running around the ring after live chickens, and culminating in him biting the head off of one. Charming! Be warned that the Geek features very prominently in this film. He is the metaphor for just how low life can stoop for some.
The film concerns an unscrupulous con man, who will stop at nothing to gain success. Lying and cheating his way to the top, he uses people for his own purposes without any qualms. He reaches the top as "The Great Stanton", a very well informed clairvoyant, who even has the ambition to play God. But as so many find to their cost, when you get to the very top, there is only one way to go. The impossibly handsome Tyrone Power plays the lead role which he had to fight hard to get. Coming back from war service he decided it was time for a change of image, which until then had consisted very successfully of romantic swashbuckling roles. Obviously not a stupid person he managed to purchase the film rights for the 1946 novel of the same title written by William Lindsay Gresham, with the hope of playing the main role himself, but Darryl F Zanuck was against the idea thinking it might damage Power's image, and more to the point his bankability. Zanuck was no fool either! Persistence eventually won the day for Power and Zanuck relented, even giving him an 'A' film budget.
The final result is what I feel to be Power's finest role by some fair distance, even allowing for his efforts in "The Sun also Rises". It is also classic film noir, although not saddled with the usual 'B' budget of this genre. Beautifully shot by Lee Garmes, and directed by Brit Edmund Goulding, who also made Garbo's "Grand Hotel", the film is very atmospheric and builds up an unrelenting sense of foreboding. Amazon describe it as darkly sophisticated and the grimmest of all Hollywood Film Noirs, which I would concur with. Sadly, audiences of the time thought differently, and it suffered the same fate as so many other fine films and bombed at the box office. The film was finally released onto DVD in 2005 following many years of legal battles, but it was worth the wait.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't forget, to err is human- -to forgive- -divine.,
Nightmare Alley is directed by Edmund Goulding and adapted to screenplay by Jules Furthman from William Lindsay Gresham's novel. It stars Tyrone Power, Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes and Mike Mazurki. Music is by Cyril J. Mockridge and cinematography by Lee Garmes.
The rise and fall of Carnival Barker, Stanton Carlisle........
Picture opens with Cyril Mockridge's ominous music, sprinkled with carny strains, it's a portent of what is to come. The characters of this particular travelling carnival then enter the fray, boxed in by Lee Garmes' shadowy photography. Mood is set at dark, not even the sight of a handsome Tyrone Power can shift the feeling that there is bleakness coming our way. Thankfully, that is the case.
Due to a legal dispute, Nightmare Alley was out of the mainstream circulation for over fifty years. A crime that robbed a whole generation of film noir lovers the chance to sample this excellent picture. Power had himself purchased the rights to Gresham's novel, determined to expand his range and break free of his typecasting as a Matinee Idol, Power wanted to play bad and got his wish. In the process giving arguably his finest career performance as Stanton Carlisle, a small time hustler who gleefully casts away human feelings to rise to the top as part of a spiritualist/mind reading act. But this is film noir, and around the corner are people just as unscrupulous as he is.
Have I ever mentioned God in this racket?
Very talky for the most part, it's the backdrops to the story that serve the narrative so well. Be it the carnival and the assortment of characters that inhabit it, or the up market club where Stanton and his wife, Molly (Gray), use psychological trickery on the affluent members of society, there's a disquiet, a sadness even, to proceedings, with Goulding and Furthman also casting an acerbic eye on social institutions and religious fervour. The latter of which provoked complaints from religious orders. There's barely a good or level headed human being to be found for the whole running time, picture is full of phonies and con-artists, gullibles and straw clutchers, beasts and alcoholics, it's no wonder the suits at the PCA got all twitchy! This is a bleak worldview, and had it finished two minutes earlier, then we would be talking about one of the finest of all film noir endings. Sadly 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck had Goulding tag on a coda to get past the PCA. Not a film killer, no sir, but a disappointment for sure.
Lilith: A female demon of the night....
The team assembled for the production is of a high quality. Power and Goulding may be out of place in the genre of film noir, but they both come out with much credit. The former is thoroughly absorbing and the latter knits it together without fuss; letting the actors fully form Furthman's (To Have and Have Not/The Big Sleep) seductively crisp screenplay, while Garmes (Scarface/Detective Story) brings the chiaroscuro, which makes a nice devilish bedfellow for Mockridge's (Road House) music. Benefiting most from Goulding's direction is Helen Walker (Murder in the Music Hall/Call Northside 777) as Lilith Ritter, an excellent portrayal of the icy cold psychiatrist who forms an intriguing axis between the three women in Stanton's life. Both Gray (Kiss of Death/Kansas City Confidential) and Blondell (Cry Havoc) earn their money as polar opposites jostling for Stanton's attentions, and Ian Keith gives a heart tugging performance as alcoholic Pete Krumbein, a critical character that spins the protagonist into a vortex of smug charlatanism-cum-self loathing.
Now available on DVD with a lovely transfer, this is worthy of a delve for the film noir dwellers. 9/10
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars THE ONLY FLAW OF THIS...,
WHY DOESN'T IT HAVE ENGLISH SUBTITLES? EXCEPT THAT, EVERYTHING IS WONDERFUL ON THIS DISC. AN EXCELLENT EXAMPLE OF FILM NOIR, I THINK.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Glossy dégradation,
Tyrone Power was 20th Century Fox's answer to Warner Brothers' Errol Flynn. However, as dated as Flynn's style of acting is, he does generate a kind of cartoon excitement. Watching the bulk of Power's swashbucklers is more of a burden. Power is typically bland. He died at 44 from a heart attack during an on-screen duel with actor George Sanders in the filming of Solomon and Sheeba (1959). Flynn died less than a year later. Both are known for iconic roles: Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Power in The Mark of Zorro (1940). They acted together only once: in Henry King's version of The Sun Also Rises (1957), which (as per most cinematic Hemingway adaptations) is best avoided. Rumors in Hollywood have long claimed that Flynn and Power engaged in a brief affair. If so, then, yes, there was more to Zorro and Robin Hood than tights and mask. Of course, the seedier aspects of Flynn's "wicked, wicked ways" are well known. Yet, behind that boyish persona, Power too had a darker personality. This began to surface later in his career with chosen roles, such as Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and in the earlier Nightmare Alley (1947).
Power came from a long line of actors, and although he desired meatier roles, he settled on the stability of his studio contract, rarely venturing outside of assignments. Nightmare Alley was a notable exception. After reading William Greshen's novel Power purchased the rights and begged Darryl Zanuck to allow him to play the part of the seedy Stanton Carlisle. Reluctantly, Zanuck agreed, although he did little to promote the film.
Edmund Goulding was given the directorial reigns after he and Power had worked together in the drama The Razor's Edge (1946). Although that film received mixed reviews, it was a commercially successful departure for the actor and commercial success was, of course, Zanuck's primary concern. Goulding's reputation had been cemented with the high class soaper Grand Hotel (1932) starring John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. A string of glossy, star-powered melodramas followed: Riptide (1934) with Norma Shearer and Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), and The Great Lie (1941), all with Bette Davis. Zanuck's choice of Goulding was strange but purposeful (for Zanuck). Nightmare Alley lacks the visceral quality of the novel (whose author, not surprisingly, committed suicide). With such a potent literary source, the film might have emerged as something deliriously akin to Tod Browning`s Freaks (1932), but it lacks an obsessive director at the helm. Where Nightmare Alley does succeed is in Goulding's direction of the superb Joan Blondell as the affable clairvoyant Zeena, Colleen Grey as the dainty circus girl Molly, and Helen Walker as the icy Dr. Lilith. (Goulding, a woman's director, had gifted Academy Award winning performances to Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Mary Astor, Joan Fontaine, and Anne Baxter).
Nightmare Alley is further helped by the bleakly prismatic cinematography of Lee Garmes, who had previously photographed such masterpieces as Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932) and Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932). Screenwriter Jules Furthman crafts a mostly compelling, pessimistic screenplay (weakened by a Zanuck-mandated semi-happy ending) that falls somewhat short of being the yardstick to measure noir by. Furthman would go one to co-write (with Willam Faulkner) two more noir "classics" ( the classics label being debatable): Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not (1944) and Hawks' cinematic treatment of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1946). Art directors J. Russell Spencer and Lyle Wheeler provide exemplary mise-en-scène in their impeccably disheveled carnival settings. Cyril Mockridge composes a taut, aptly grotesque score.
Character actors Ian Keith (as Zeena's cuckold, Pete) and James Flavin (as the brawny barker Hoatley) leave the scene too soon, forcing star Power, as a slippery pseudo-mystic, to represent the carny world's masculine populace. Power is only half up to the job. Although his performance was almost unanimously praised by critics of the era (including the great James Agee), Power projects a woodenness in the early scenes that does not altogether convince us of his charisma. Still, perhaps his artificiality, based solely on pulchritude, makes his downfall all the more shocking; and it is in his dissipated state that Power, surprisingly, lives up to the actor's narcissistic potential. Power reminds the viewer of the horror that was once associated with the term "geek" in what turns out to be, perhaps, his finest performance.
Despite Zanuck's attempt to give the film a commercial sheen, Nightmare Alley was a major flop with American audiences, who fervently resisted seeing one of their established stars try something original. The critics proved more insightful, and it was they who had the final say. Today Nightmare Alley is one of Power's most celebrated films, while the majority of his commercial fodder has aged poorly and is primarily forgotten. Despite this, the movie rarely ran on television and its appearance in the home video market was considerably belated. Naturally, its unavailability only increased its cult status, until Fox finally responded, making it part of its film noir series on DVD (it never appeared on VHS).
* my review originally appeared at 366 weird movies
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars NIGHTMARE ALLEY,
Absolutely brilliant, quirky noir love story.Tyrone Power is great against type and a strong support cast.Would recommend to all noir fans.Great carnival setting with some fantastic scenes, lighting, characters and script.
I was also impressed with the editing as it seemed to move along at a good pace throughout.Excellent.
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Jitty of Dreams,
Tyrone does his best, and he is good, to create an oily but eventually sympathetic character. It is a well-made film. He is very handsome on the edge of middle-age and Joan Blondell manages to age from sexy faithful tart to frump during the first hour impressively. Not sure it is a full 5 stars despite the enthusiasm. Good story though the clever 'code' of the 'mentalist' is not really explained. The last moments are effectively tragic. Director Edmund Goulding is worthy of investigation.
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Nightmare Alley [DVD] by Edmund Goulding (DVD - 2013)