Watched: January 29 2017
Director: Edmund Goulding
Starring: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Ian Keith
Runtime: 1h 50min
Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley brings us back to the carny world of Freaks, complete with a Geek (not the computer kind though; more the rip-the-heads-off-of-chickens-with-his-teeth kind). It’s a world we’ve missed and we were very happy to be back.
Zeena, Mentalist Princess (Blondell), is mentoring Stan (Power), an ambitious young carnival performer. Stan learns of a secret code which Zeena and her now alcoholic husband Pete (Keith) used to “tell fortunes” back in their Vaudeville days, and he is set on learning it. However, Pete will have none of it and forbids his wife from teaching it to Stan or anyone else.
One dark night, there is a fatal (if accidental?) mix-up of bottles, and Pete has drunk his last drop. Unable to perform alone, Zeena teaches Stan the code and the two of them resurrect her old clairvoyant act. That is, until Stan is caught fraternizing with fellow performer Molly (Gray) and the lovers are forced to marry, leave the carnival and set up on their own.
With his new wife, Stan starts performing in hotels – a step up from the traveling carnival circuit and with a slightly more powerful and respectable clientele. As his audience and his reputation grow, he strikes up a (probably platonic) relationship with a consulting psychologist, Lilith Ritter (Walker), who treats many of the city’s elite. When he learns that she records her sessions, he teams up with her to use her clients’ personal information to gain their trust and their money.
Stan becomes the victim of his own hubris and ambition. No matter how many of the women (and Tarot cards) in his life try to warn him that he is crossing the line he keeps pushing, making himself out to be almost a Messiah figure, and in the end something’s got to give. The story comes full circle – we start and end in a traveling carnival where people make their own fate. Nightmare Alley is in many ways an Ikaros-tale, and it’s an intriguing and hypnotic watch. We absolutely loved it!
What we learned: Never trust a professional conman. Or a consulting psychologist. Also, do not take the Lord’s name in vain.
Next time: Odd Man Out (1947)