NIGHTMARE ALLEY: film noir in a freak show

 

(USA, 1947, Edmund Goulding)

NIGHTMARE ALLEY

NIGHTMARE ALLEY is carnivalesque noir — a freak show phantasmagoria in which no one is safe from their past. Guilt, fate and social status conspire against those who dream too large. Swashbuckling leading man Tyrone Power tried to escape being typecast in epic costume dramas and paid for it when this one flopped. But it was a brave choice and this is the best I’ve seen him — his good looks and charisma are perfectly suited to his role as a magnetic mentalist — a carnival sideshow performer who longs to hit the big time. The first half of the film plays like a Jim Thompson novel set in a freak show — an ambitious con artist learning the graft. The second part twists into less charted territories as Power hits the hotel lounge circuit and makes it big in the big city; transforming along the way from a two-bit parlor tricks hustler into a phony spiritualist. He spouts his psychobabble gospel with true religious fervor, while hatching a scheme with a sultry psychoanalyst who gives him dirt on her high society patients so he can con them out of their money. This added dimension (both anti-religion and anti-psychiatry) makes it one of the most cynical and fascinating noirs.

But in the shadowy and fatalistic realm of noir, predestination reigns and those who rise too high are swatted back down to the depths from which they arose. It’s a dark and mordant portrayal of those living on the margins. Like the best noirs, not one scene is wasted — it’s tight, taut, and densely layered. Directed with pinpoint precision by Edmund Goulding (who made a name for himself with more lavish films like GRAND HOTEL) and crisply adapted by Jules Furthman (who also had a hand in RIO BRAVO and THE BIG SLEEP) from the novel by William Lindsay Gresham (a writer with an obsession for the carnival who committed suicide in 1962 after his wife ran off to London and shacked up with C.S. Lewis, whom she eventually married), NIGHTMARE ALLEY is bleak and cruel with a twisted ironic sensibility. Ever wanted to become a circus geek? NIGHTMARE ALLEY shows you how.

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