HE WAS ALL THINGS TO ALL MEN… BUT ONLY ONE THING TO ALL WOMEN!
One of the wonders about Guillermo del Toro’s 2021 version of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel is that he clearly saw it through his eyes, making the design and feel of the carnival in the story fit in with the look and themes of his previous films. Still, the 1947 version also holds up exceptionally well, a film noir interpretation of the novel that became one of the genre’s best examples – and in Tyrone Power’s opinion, his greatest performance.
Learning a code
Stan Carlisle (Power) has been hired as the barker at a traveling carnival. He’s interested in all the acts, including ”the geek”, a grotesque man who’s more animal than human. But he finds the Krumbeins (Joan Blondell, Ian Keith) specially alluring. They used to be a vaudeville act where she, as ”Mademoiselle Zeena”, read people’s minds; they developed a code between them that became the key to their performance. Eventually, Zeena’s attraction to other men and Pete’s alcoholism destroyed their act, but Zeena still holds on to the code, refusing to sell it to anyone for money.
Stan wants to learn it, but not until Pete dies does he get a chance; he’s partly responsible for the death, a fact he keeps hidden, but Zeena makes him her assistant and teaches him the code. Eventually, Stan and Molly (Coleen Gray), a young woman at the carnival, hit it off, leading to a bold career…
Met a carnival worker in Spain
Gresham was a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War and this is where he met a former carnival worker who started telling him about his experiences. Back in the United States, Gresham wrote the novel and saw it published in 1946. Right after Tyrone Power was back in Hollywood after serving in the Marines during World War II, Fox honcho Darryl F. Zanuck cast him in The Razor’s Edge, a film that was very different from the usual swashbucklers and romantic movies that Power made before the war. The star must have gotten a taste for more demanding work, because he told Zanuck that he wanted Fox to buy the rights for Gresham’s novel; the dark leading role must have looked very appealing to him.
The whole carnival set was built on the Fox backlot, employing hundreds of actual carnival workers for the sake of authenticity. Aided by cinematographer Lee Garmes, director Edmund Goulding (who had plenty of experience from different genres) made the carnival look real enough and the darkness of the story remains convincing throughout, even in the film’s final moments which were somewhat softened in comparison to the novel’s ending.
Stan’s downfall is complete in both versions, but in the movie there is some hope, a ray of light, in the shape of sweet Molly. She’s attractively played by Gray, a symbol of innocence who is close to being ruined by her love for Stan. Blondell and Helen Walker are worth a look as women who present more of a challenge to Stan; the mentalist who can see the future in her Tarot cards and the psychologist who opens an abyss for Stan without him realizing it. Power is also excellent as a man who’s not as clever as he thinks.
In Gresham’s novel, each chapter is represented by a Tarot card, offering the reader clues to what will happen. The cards are an important part of the story, an ugly sign serving as a warning to Stan, one he unwisely chooses to ignore. Zeena has no power over the cards, she’s just there to present them. The more you think about it afterwards, death becomes a regular symbol. Not just in the cards, but all over the place. The geek is not at the carnival to entertain you.
Nightmare Alley 1947-U.S. 111 min. B/W. Produced by George Jessel. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Screenplay: Jules Furthmann. Novel: William Lindsay Gresham. Cinematography: Lee Garmes. Cast: Tyrone Power (Stanton ”Stan” Carlisle), Joan Blondell (Zeena Krumbein), Coleen Gray (Molly Carlisle), Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki.
Last word: “They put me to work supporting several actors who were testing for ‘Nightmare Alley’… and when their tests were seen, so was I. I was given the feminine lead in ‘Kiss of Death’. When, in turn, they saw the rushes of ‘Kiss’, I was offered Molly in ‘Nightmare Alley’ if I would sign a seven-year contract at the same salary. I thought this was wrong and refused. They hired me anyway – it was just a power play.” (Gray, “Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory”)