Friday, June 19, 2015

Noir Watch: Nightmare Alley (1947)

I like a movie that starts at the circus, and especially anything that starts on the Midway.  Probably because I know that if I were born 100 years prior, I'd have been some roustabout working behind the scenes of a freak show and hanging around the pinheads.

Nightmare Alley (1947) stars a whole lot of people I'm not overly familiar with, from Tyrone Power (who I think of as being a pirate-y and shirtless), and Colleen Gray.  The movie also stars a 41 year old Joan Blondell as a formerly hugely successful mentalist now working the circus sideshow circuit with her former partner assisting (now a shambling drunk) and Tyrone Power flirting with her/ trying to figure out her angle for his own gain.

Power's character, Stan Carlisle, is a fascinating character.  A chiseler with a touch of megalomania, a guy who would be a con artist if he could figure out a con.  And in Blondell's Zeena and her partner, he's finally found the big score.  And, despite the warnings of the prior failures at a life of the con, he decides he's the one who can make it work.*

The movie, in the end, is really about the rise and downfall of a real heel, and it's perfect noir - a guy doomed by his own foibles and getting into a situation of his own making that spins out of control.  Instead of detectives or insurance investigators, this one is about a grifter who takes his con too far - and it's a familiar con.  No sooner has he bedded Zeena into giving him her secret code and worked out how one does the mentalist/ spiritualist bit, then he takes up with the fresh-faced and sweet Colleen Gray, full of naive ideas in a world that doesn't work in the Pollyannaish way she'd like.

Soon, Stan Carlisle and she have their own act, and with the help of a local shrink and a recording machine, they sort out who to win over with their act and how to fleece them.  His performance is much like that of a John Edwards or other "psychic" who can "see" things about the marks.  I mean, audience, including information about deceased loved ones.

All in all, it's a pretty great movie with Power really surprising me with a performance that feels lived in and believable as he tries both successfully and otherwise to manipulate the people around him, almost as a compulsion.  Sometimes it works... other times...

The movie may not quite be The Third Man, but it's an interesting bit of film, and apparently mostly forgotten until the Film Noir Foundation assisted in the movie's restoration a few years back.  This movie was shown as part of TCM's "Summer of Darkness" series hosted by The Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller - who stated prior to the movie that at a screening he was informed that as the public forgot the book and movie, "Do you know my friend, Stan Carlisle?" became a password among con artists to let them each know of the other without giving up the game.

*in another movie, this guy would be opening island amusement parks full of dinosaurs


Unknown said...

A fascinating movie.

The League said...

fully agree. I recently picked it up on BluRay but have yet to watch it. I did rewatch the film in 2019.