Monday, November 01, 2021

Freaks and Geeks: Nightmare Alley (1947)

Thinking back several days after absorbing Edmund Goulding's bleak psychological thriller "Nightmare Alley", I don't recall a single ray of sunlight penetrating its mass. Even the opening carnival scene- typically a sun drenched affair for families to frolic and glare at the attractions- takes place at night. And this is where we first meet carny Stan (Tyrone Power) and his single minded intention to ascend to the very top of society. First, we think it'll be with the charismatic and clairvoyant Zeena (Joan Blondell). Then his attraction turns to perky Molly (a wonderful Coleen Gray, and pretty much the central person we root for to crawl out with her sanity). But no matter who he chooses, the darkness of night has already penetrated our souls and we seem to understand that no one will get out of the carnival alive.

Based on a novel by William Lindsey Gresham (whose real life seemed like a mirror to the hard drinking and pessimistic outlook of many of the film's characters), "Nightmare Alley" seems to fit in a variety of genres. It's been called horror (as one scene towards the end certainly has "The Innocents" vibes), film noir (where it seems to be slotted most of the time) and postwar thriller since its release in 1947. For my money, its unclassifiable because it handles so many of its twists and turns with mastery. 

After certain events have temporarily but successfully removed Stan from the humdrum of carnival maintenance to his own stage in a respectable town, the real mind screw begins. Favored by wealthy clients in the club who believe "Stanton the Great" actually can read minds, he comes in contact with psychologist Lilith (Helen Walker) and the deception grows deeper.The duo hatch a scheme that's more complex than a carnival scam, but whose consequences have even deeper tragic consequences. Just because there aren't tents and barkers angling for one's money, the deception is just as real. Everyone has an ulterior motive and everyone is playing some sort of game. "Nightmare Alley" juggles all this psychological warfare with precision.

Since sleight of mind is the central deceit in the film, "Nightmare Alley" seems like the perfect vehicle for a modern day re-imagining, which is exactly what we'll get in a couple of months, courtesy of even more Big Time Stars. Hopefully, it will maintain the original film's spirit of ironic sympathy and hardened immoralism that makes it such an amazing feat.

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