Sunday, May 12, 2019
Noir Watch: Nightmare Alley (1947)
Format: Noir Alley on TCM on DVR
I remember reading that film-reviewer Pauline Kael made it a rule to only ever watch a film once - maybe a practicality of her business, maybe a personal quirk (as in all things, it's only mostly true). I think about this a lot, because - as anyone who has followed the blog or PodCast knows - I find returning to movies fascinating, both to see what my now-brain thinks of a movie versus what I thought of it then, and because of how those differences reflect on your own experience, making films something all the more personal.
I saw Nightmare Alley (1947) about four years ago, and I remembered thinking it was good - but not really clicking to it in particular. But on this viewing, despite the fact I remembered the film fairly well, it just reached out and hit me over the head. This is a brilliant, wonderfully crafted movie, tackling deeply sensitive material and plowing right through, and getting away with it like the low-level conman who inserts himself with the right clothes and patter - the movie sure looks like a morality tale and crime movie, while questioning the nature of anyone selling you salvation, spiritual insight or deep insight into your own psyche.
The movie layers con upon con, only acknowledging parts of each con - and I'm not entirely sure I read the movie properly the first time, possibly failing to really grasp how characters play each other for saps and suckers, grifting to get the advantage, everyone working their angle - everyone falling for bits and pieces of each other's spin - but if you're looking at your phone, you're going to miss a hell of a lot of what's done if you're only half paying attention.
Starring Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle (or, as he transforms himself: The Great Stanton), the movie follows a roustabout who is teamed with the once great Vaudeville star, Zeena (played by 40ish, gorgeous Joan Blondell.*) who performs a cheapened version of her formerly great stage show now that her partner is a near useless drunk. After an accident befalls the former partner, Stan seduces Zeena, convincing her they'll revive the act - but he's got eyes on the naive and lovely showgirl played by Coleen Gray.
Eventually Stan and Molly set up shop in Chicago as a nightclub act using Zeena's old act, when Stan meets a lovely psychologist (Helen Walker) who may be running her own grifts and Stan gets some ideas.
The film is deeply dark, acknowledging the simple showmanship and ways in which people develop trust in those who don't deserve that trust. But it also digs at the foundations of what many hold as truth, maybe not breaking away the foundations, but certainly taking an inquisitive look to make sure there are foundations there, after all - and that would make for uncomfortable territory for folks who understood what the movie was suggesting - but also getting their studio-managed morality tale, too.
Everyone involved is also terrific - from Blondell's multi-layered line-delivery and performance to Power's astounding transformation from slick roustabout to nightclub mentalist to his final scenes - carrying us with him through his various stages. And I can't say enough about Walker's razor sharp performance and final scenes.
Honestly, I don't think I fully *got* this movie the first time - maybe even misinterpreted some bits, but now I can't wait to watch it again. It's not a film where you relish the cons - it's no crime comedy - but I do find it fascinating watching the players work, what resonates with the listeners, and how much maybe the audience gets dragged along until they realize that they, too, are the mark, and wonder how often they've been on the wrong side of someone with something to sell.
Recently I heard Guillermo Del Toro is considering remaking the movie, and I'd love to see his take. Blondell, Power, Walker and Gray are all long-since passed, and I'd be curious to see what someone with the visual acuity of Del Toro would be able to do with the settings and characters.
Give this one a shot. Fully recommended.
*one problem Stan does not have in this movie is a lack of attractive co-stars