Wednesday, February 20, 2013

CMBA Blogathon: Nightmare Alley (1947)

Woodcut print by Guy Budziak
Coney Island's first so-called "freak show" opened in 1880, but the heyday of its sideshow attractions began nearly 25 years later when Samuel W. Gumpertz opened "Lilliputia" at Dreamland, one of the site's three major amusement parks. Wildly popular with tourists, "Lilliputia" was a miniature city scaled to accommodate its 300 midget and dwarf residents. When Dreamland burned in 1911, Gumpertz built the Dreamland Circus Sideshow and traveled the world constantly seeking "freaks" (usually those with congenital anomalies) and people from exotic lands (Filipino blowgun shooters, actual "wild men" from Borneo, Ubangi women with plated lips) for his shows. In no time Gumpertz would have competition from The World Circus Freak Show, Wonderland Circus Sideshow and other copy-cat venues large and small.

Geek show, Nightmare Alley
During Coney Island's peak, its bizarre sideshow attractions drew great crowds. Naturally, young people were especially awed by the incredible "human oddities" on display. One boy, whose family had recently moved to Brooklyn, became enthralled with these freak attractions. He haunted the sideshows and reportedly held a job on the midway for a while. His name was William Lindsay Gresham and he was born in Baltimore in 1909. His family had moved from Baltimore to Massachusetts in 1916 before coming to New York and, for most of his life, Gresham would live in New York. He worked as a reporter after high school and for a time made a living in Greenwich Village as a folk singer. In the late '30s he served in the Spanish Civil War, fighting the good fight against Franco. While in Spain he met a fellow American who regaled him with memories of life on the carnival circuit. It was through this man, 'Doc' Halliday, that William Lindsay Gresham learned all about 'carny culture' and first heard of the sideshow act known as 'the geek.' Halliday's description of this creature, a man who crawled around in filth and bit the heads from live chickens and snakes for booze money, revolted and intrigued Gresham. He could not get the image out of his head and later said, "to get rid of it, I had to write it out."
 
William Lindsay Gresham
After he returned to the states, Gresham found employment editing and contributing to pulp magazines. With a steady income providing some financial stability, he was able to begin work on his first novel. Nightmare Alley appeared in 1946. The novel was a soul blistering tour of third-rate Depression-era carnival life and the "spook racket." 'Protagonist' Stan Carlisle is a handsome young man in a low-level carny job who is driven at first by lust and then by the burning ambition to make it big. Coolly conning nearly everyone who crosses his path, Stan makes his way up, up, up as a bogus clairvoyant and on to the heights as a religious charlatan. But he meets his match in a high-end grifter even more cold-blooded than he is. Stan's fall is fast and far and horrific.

Author Gresham, a tormented man in search of peace of mind, had, by the time he was writing Nightmare Alley, already dabbled in Marxism and psychoanalysis and was now studying the Tarot (each chapter of the book is named for a Major Arcana card). He would go on to delve into and abandon Christianity, Zen Buddhism and Alcoholics Anonymous. None of these pursuits would alleviate his struggle with personal demons. The expanse of Gresham's own sense of desperation was revealed in his all-too-real depiction of human despair in Nightmare Alley; later in life he would claim in a letter, "Stan is the author."

Nightmare Alley was a success and the film rights were quickly snapped up by Tyrone Power, who'd read the book and saw in Stan Carlisle the role of a lifetime. He pressed his boss, 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, to produce the adaptation and allow him to star. The film Power badgered Zanuck to make would be directed by Edmund Goulding and co-star Joan Blondell, Helen Walker and Coleen Gray. It was released in 1947.

Tyrone Power makeup test for Nightmare Alley

If William Lindsay Gresham was a troubled misfit, Tyrone Power would seem his very opposite. Born into a legendary theatrical family and graced with good looks, onscreen charisma and talent, Power was a movie star by age 22 - a decade or more younger than most leading men of the late '30s. But, as the years passed, Power became frustrated with the too-often shallow roles Fox offered him and had begun to have misgivings about his career. He told a girlfriend, "Someday I'll show the @!&%!*s who say I was a success just because of my pretty face..." and famously commented on charismatic appeal, "The secret of charm is bullshit." By the time Nightmare Alley came along, Tyrone Power was ready to play Stan Carlisle.

Helen Walker as Dr. Lilith Ritter
A 1947 film adaptation of Nightmare Alley could never have been entirely faithful to the novel - the book was just too raw, sexual and disturbing. So the story was streamlined and cleaned up. Noir veteran Jules Furthman's screenplay could only imply or allude to what was far more perverse and explicit in the novel. Furthman did manage to incorporate a good dose of Gresham's rich and authentic huckster jargon into the script and Goulding evokes, as much as he was allowed, the novel's underlying savagery. An A-budget noir, Nightmare Alley's ink-black look came courtesy of Lee Garmes, one of the developers of "Rembrandt lighting," with art direction by Lyle Wheeler, effects by Fred Sersen and makeup by Ben Nye. Joan Blondell is a natural cast as blowzy, pillowy Zeena, the mentalist, and Helen Walker as Dr. Lilith Ritter is razor-blade deadly. But it is Tyrone Power's portrayal of Stan Carlisle that is the eye-opener. Power's Stan evolves from opportunistic naif to oily hustler, slick headliner, relentless schemer, jumpy man-on-the-run and, finally, vulnerable rum-dum. The transformation is shattering.

It's no secret that Darryl Zanuck disliked Nightmare Alley. Power was his box office bonanza of a leading man and Zanuck hadn't wanted to risk casting him in so dark a film. But was it a risk? The post-war era brought stars like Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce), Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend), Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice), Ronald Coleman (A Double Life) and others new success - and sometimes an Oscar - for less than sympathetic character portrayals in downbeat films. On release, Nightmare Alley received mixed reviews (a New York Times reviewer complained, "this film traverses distasteful dramatic ground") but Power's performance was widely acclaimed. That was not enough to reassure an already nervous studio and the film's run in theaters was brief. It was a commercial failure.

 Pete (Ian Keith) reads Stan (Tyrone Power)

Zanuck's reluctance to back Nightmare Alley is often blamed for its failure. But his caution makes sense given the times and his understanding of Tyrone Power's place in movie goers' hearts. Audiences could handle the handsome star as a skirt-chasing carnival Lothario sporting a cocky attitude and a tight tee-shirt. But once Stan's seamy nature begins to creep to the surface - a wad of chewing gum always in his cheek, a cigarette behind his ear, a spiel ever on his lips - the audience might start to get jittery. When he slips a bottle of hooch to Pete (Ian Keith), a carny alcoholic who is an obstacle to his dreams, there's no denying Stan's ruthlessness. It becomes clear soon enough that Stan is a nastier more cynical sort than Dion O'Leary, a romanticized Jesse James or Clive Briggs. By film's end, when an unhinged Stan runs through the midway, wild-eyed and vacant, swinging a club at anyone who comes near, Power's multitude of fans might well have stared in disbelief. How could Tyrone Power (Zorro, that Yank who joined the RAF, Jamie Waring!?!) possibly be the pathetic, disfigured wretch on the screen? They may not have realized or cared that they had just witnessed the performance of his career. Darryl Zanuck must have breathed a deep sigh of relief when Captain from Castile, a Technicolor swashbuckler Power finished just before Nightmare Alley, was released a few months later to blockbuster business.

Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle
The publication and reception of Nightmare Alley was the one great success of William Lindsay Gresham's career. His second and final novel was a commercial flop. He went back to writing for pulp magazines and published only three more books, all non-fiction. With his health failing and low on cash, Gresham took his own life in a cheap New York hotel in September 1962. He is best remembered by some as a footnote in the life of C.S. Lewis; Gresham's second wife, Joy Davidman, married Lewis after her split from Gresham. Shadowlands, a TV movie, play and film, was based on the Lewis/Davidman relationship.  Others place Gresham in the pantheon of writers like Nathaniel West, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. Nightmare Alley's reputation has grown steadily through the years and in 2010 New York Review Books published a new, uncensored edition. This publication boasts an introduction by Nick Tosches, who is at work on a Gresham biography. The NYRB edition of Nightmare Alley was hailed by critics; reviews were filled with glowing adjectives - and one constant noun: masterpiece.

Tyrone Power would never have another film role quite equal to Stan Carlisle, but his last onscreen performance, in Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution (1957), was as a character not unlike Stan. Once more he received critical praise, something he'd nearly given up on ("They still don't take me seriously," he complained a year or so earlier). Power had spent the intervening years making movies of varying quality, working successfully in the theater, traveling the world - and going through a succession of women and a lot of money. His death at age 44 occurred in Spain where he was filming Solomon and Sheba. Perhaps fate thought it better to spare him that biblical swashbuckler. Of all the films he made, Nightmare Alley would remain Power's favorite, the one he screened at home for friends.


Nightmare Alley developed a cult following that continued to grow over the decades. Because of legal wrangling between the estate of its producer, George Jessel, and 20th Century Fox, it was kept out of the home video market for years. Finally released on DVD in 2005, the film was greeted with a new wave of enthusiasm from critics, film buffs and film noir fans. Once overlooked and undervalued, Nightmare Alley is now considered a noir classic, one of the bleakest films in a bleak genre, singular for its carny setting and absence of thugs-with-guns and outright murder.


This piece is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon. Click here for links to all participating blogs.

Notes:
Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, Introduction by Nick Tosches, New York Review Books (2010)
Noir Fiction: Dark Highways by Paul Duncan, Oldcastle Books (2000)
Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller, St. Martin's Press (1998)
All Those Tomorrows by Mai Zetterling, Grove Press (1985)
The Films of Tyrone Power by Dennis Belafonte with Alvin H. Marill, Citadel Press (1979)





39 comments:

  1. Eve, if the 1947 film adaptation of NIGHTMARE ALLEY was toned down, then the book must have been a doozy. NIGHTMARE ALLEY is still a potent film (though not on the level of FREAKS) and I think it's Tyrone Powers' best performance. However, I can understand why Zanuck breathed easier after CAPTAIN FROM CASTILLE.

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    1. Rick, I read the book for the first time a few weeks ago and it is a scorcher. No holds barred. After the first edition was published, there wasn't an uncensored edition for 30 or more years. I watched "Captain from Castile" for the first time in a while last week and while it is overlong and uneven, Power was quite good (though the role didn't necessarily require it) and the Technicolor was stunning. Linda Darnell had originally been cast as the female lead, but was reassigned to "Forever Amber." She would've been a big improvement over Jean Peters, who looks a little too trampy for me in "Castile."

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    2. as the saying goes...Jean Peters was NO Jean Arthur!

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  2. Great article! I love learning the background of the film. I think it was very frustrating to be "pretty" during the Golden Age. Studios were very reluctant to let stars like Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn go dark because they were big box office draws in more lighthearted films. It is ironic that beautiful women like Gene Tierney could be dark and still bankable. No doubt the studio system had its flaws but at least there are films like "Nightmare Alley" that were made and stand up well.

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    1. Thanks, Gilby. As I was working on this I was reminded of how Hitchcock's "Suspicion" was ruined because the ending was altered to prevent Cary Grant's character from being a murderer. No, the studios could allow their leading ladies to be femme fatales (as with Lana Turner in "The Postman Always Rings Twice," Tierney in "Leave Her to Heaven," etc.), but leading men were sentenced to be dashing romantics for life...or til they were over the hill or the studio system died - whichever came first.

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  3. Interesting enough we cover some of the same territory in our reviews though we wrote about two different films. My pick, THE OX BOW INCIDENT, was also a reluctant film made by Zanuck, though the reasons were different. Powers fought to get this film made while Henry Fonda and William Wellman fought to get OX BOW made. Both films were failures at the box office too. I generally don't think much of Powers as an actor but in this role he gives a truly convincing performance. I can understand his wanting to do this film. Blondell also got one of her better late film career roles. I may have to check out the novel. One of your best articles Eve!!!

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    1. John, I think Power is underrated, really. He got better as he got older, but there is something in him (besides his looks, build and voice) that made him a natural as a romantic lead. I think that is less appealing to men than women, especially these days. Will be over to check out your piece on "The Ox Bow Incident." Zanuck must've hated it when his stars battled to make 'heavier' films. So much easier to assign them to lighter, easier to market fare.

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  4. Fascinating background and article which will deeply inform my next viewing.

    I have never been able to come up with that one word that fully describes Tyrone Power's performance in this film and the impact it has had on me. To say it is one of the great ones doesn't seem to do it justice.

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    1. CF, I think you're right, there is no single word (and many came to my mind). The last scene, when Coleen Gray comes to his rescue and he doesn't seem to recognize her, really, but croaks out "Molly??" just breaks my heart.

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  5. Great writing. An excellent essay on this powerful film. I've never read the novel, but your compelling post makes me want to have a look. Love all the research you've included.

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    1. Jacqueline, The novel is beautifully written (I think Nick Tosches calls Gresham's writing "blue steel prose") but dark, dark, dark. Some consider the ending of the film upbeat. By comparison to the book, it is. But what I see in the movie ending is Stan and Molly about to form a relationship that may very well end up like that of Zeena and Pete - and that's no happy ending.

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  6. Eve, typecasting ruined many a great actor/actress. It is a shame when studios block projects because they want to damage the "brand" of one of their stars. At least Power got a few chances to expand his range. As always, a wonderful and insightful article.

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    1. Kim, Even though Power's last project was "Solomon and Sheba" I'm sure, had he lived a longer life, he would've eventually had great opportunities for character roles (Mr. Sheldrake in "The Apartment," that sort of thing). He was quite the leading man in his youth, though, so Zanuck's dilemma was understandable.

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  7. Wonderful post Lady Eve, and a great contribution to the 40s films blogathon. Somehow I haven't seen Nightmare Alley, but I will now seek the DVD. I'm a fan of Tyrone Power too, and like movies that come from the shady side of the street.I think the movies coming out just after World War II had a window of opportunity to show the really dark side of human character, a theme in evidence every day of the war and really revealed at war's end. Adjusting to civilian life was difficult (can we imagine millions of Iraq/Afghanistan vets?). The happy movies (and times)that are today's stereotype of the 40s and early 50s is misguided. And literature was often bleak in this time period as well. One of my favorite authors of the noir genre is Cornel Woolrich, whose bleakness, like Greshams, is glossed over in films. But that's another subject - you flesh out this movie, its star and writer, fully and knowledgeably.

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    1. Christian, "Nightmare Alley" is a film that took me a while to fully appreciate. I began to suspect that I had some resistance because of my fondness for Ty as a romantic ideal. Got over that and am now a big fan of the movie. You make an excellent point about the post-war era. The war's impact on the movies (and literature) was enormous. Noir began to emerge, became a potent genre, the trend in downbeat films followed, the antihero took the place of the hero, etc. I haven't read Cornel Woolrich, have only seen adaptations of his work. After reading Gresham I'm interested in checking him out.

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  8. Eve, an absolutely wonderful post on a genuinely great film. I wish the ending had gone all the way - it's too pat for my taste - but what comes before it is cherce (to quote Spencer Tracy).

    If anyone is interested, there's a wonderful volume of American crime novels, published by the Library of America. It's not too expensive, and the titles should appeal to movie buffs.

    In addition to "Nightmare Alley" (I don't think its the uncensored version, however), there one-volume book contains:

    "The Postman Always Rings Twice" by James M. Cain; "They Shoot Horses Don't They" by Horace McCoy; "Thieves Like Us" by Edward Anderson; "The Big Clock" by Kenneth Fearing and "I Married a Dead Man" by Cornell Woolrich, made into the Barbara Stanwyck noir soaper "No Man of Her Own" (1950).

    "Nightmare Alley" is probably Power's best performance and based on all the money he made for the studio, I wish Zanuck had cast him in a larger variety of roles. It's the least he could have done. It's a film way ahead of its time.

    I met Colleen Gray once at a horror convention and had her sign a still of the film for me. She said it was one of her favorite roles and indeed, she's very good in it.

    I've always had a fascination with Ian Keith, who almost played Dracula in 1930 for Universal. He's also very good as the gin-soaked rummy. He had the most unusual, angular-looking face. Joan Blondell enjoyed one of the best roles of her career. It's always interesting to watch our favorite stars break out of their molds. You can almost taste the freedom of their release. All of that is apparent in "Nightmare Alley."

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    1. Kevin, I don't see the ending as a happy one. Admittedly, the end of the book is so dark it's black (the entire book is like that), but I see in the movie ending not the salvation of Stan but potentially a repeat of Zeena and Pete's arrangement. Pete drank and Zeena took care of him. Those were the words Molly used when she embraced Stan, "I'll take care of you." And Stan hardly recognized her.

      Envy your meeting Coleen Gray. Would love to talk with her about "Nightmare Alley." Next to Power, I was most impressed with Helen Walker - and their scenes together were phenomenal. I don't know Ian Keith except for this film and he is superb, as the scene above shows. A great cast all the way around. As far as breaking out of the mold is concerned, I've always thought Tyrone Power would've been a perfect fit for the title role in "The Picture of Dorian Gray." It would've been great chance to use the dark side his looks and elegant charm.

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  9. Oh boy, do I LOVE this movie and your wonderful, fully-packed post does it justice. Tyrone Power really got to deliver the goods here and the freak angle is just too delicious. Power's narcissistic characterization is chilling and it is really disturbing to think what is going on behind that pretty face. A really terrific read, Lady Eve - I was looking forward to it all week.

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    1. Thank you, Chick! I suspect Tyrone Power was not only thrilled to play Stan Carlisle but also thoroughly enjoyed being made up so that his face looked almost mutilated at the end of the film. Ben Nye did a fabulous job and Power's beautiful eyes look like something out of "The Island of Lost Souls." By the way, Ben Nye's big break in movies was doing Power's makeup on "Lloyd's of London."

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  10. Eve, a most interesting film for the application of your characteristically meticulous and thorough approach. I've loved this film ever since I first saw it a number of years ago. It was one of the very first things I recall ever seeing Tyrone Power in. I had no preconceptions about his talent or screen image but just thought he gave a tremendous performance. As I saw more of his pictures in later years, I never saw one where he reached the excellence of this one. Since it was the most ambitious and challenging role he ever played, a point you emphasize, I suppose this is to be expected.

    I also love Joan Blondell here. It's my favorite performance by her after her years as a star at Warners. The film shows what an interesting character actress she developed into as she approached middle age. The sassy winsomeness of her early years at Warners became the slightly overripe blowsiness you see here. I thought she was also impressive in a similar role in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" also made around this time. And I always liked Helen Walker, who got to show an untypically dark side here too. It's too bad about the personal problems that ruined her career.

    I've seen the film several times since and unlike some other films it hasn't decreased a bit in my estimation since that first viewing. And I'll have to try to locate a copy of the Gresham novel. Everything you wrote about it him and the book was new to me and made it sound fascinating.

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    1. R.D., I'm not at all familiar with Helen Walker beyond "Nightmare Alley." I've seen "Cluny Brown" and "Northside 777," but just don't remember her. She is not to be forgotten as Lilith Ritter. For me, she's in the same league as Jane Greer (my favorite femme fatale) in "Out of the Past." Most other noir dames aren't quite so lush in looks and at the same time so entirely cold-blooded.

      I hope you're able to read Gresham's book - it's quite an experience and I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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  11. I do not think I have seen this, what sounds amazing.. Tryone Power film. I always believed Power, was capable of performing in more serious roles than what was normally given him.

    This film sounds like he was able to prove how good his acting talents were.

    From your pictures the cinematography and the sets look amazing..

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    1. Dawn, If you get the Fox Movie Channel, "Nightmare Alley" airs on it about once a month, usually in a very late or very early time slot. This is the film you've got to see if you want to know just how talented Tyrone Power actually was. The cinematography is outstanding - the crew on this film was of the same calibre as the cast. And who knew Edmund Goulding had noir in him?

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  12. This is a stand-out review even by your standards, Eve. I love all the extra information you have about Gresham and Zanuck and the journey from book to film. I'm not surprised that Power jumped on this role and I think he pretty much delivers in every way. I want to chime in that I also like Helen Walker, who's quite frightening here. The scene where she slowly turns the tables on Stan feels like something out of a nightmare. I also really like Joan Blondell and she's very memorable here and has a surprising amount of chemistry with Power. Again, great review!

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    1. Thank you, Aubyn. The scene you mention where Lilith turns the tables is almost surreal. We - and Stan - discover to our surprise just how thoroughly vicious she is. There isn't a false note in Walker's performance in the scene (or any other). Totally convincing and chilling. Joan Blondell's warm, earthy quality seems to add the needed amount of heart/humanity to the grim proceedings.

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  13. Lady E,
    You always pick such interesting films for our Blogathons and this one is no different.

    While I'm glad that Power held his own and got the rights to the novel then the film made. I do wish that it could have been adapted to the screen before the sensors and codes started ruining things. It would have been even better if presented during the early 30s. Of course, Power would not have been involved, most likely.

    You've really given us a lot of background here and interesting info on the author as well as the hiccups with getting Nightmare Alley made. One of my favorite films is Freaks so NA does remind me of it in a lot of ways.

    If any film or any character deserves a cult following, it's Stan!

    A stellar review of a very intriguing piece of cinema!
    Page

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    1. Page, I don't think even an early '30s version of "Nightmare Alley" would've come very close to faithfully adapting the novel. Maybe Martin Scorsese in his "Taxi Driver" phase, but I don't see it being made and being that close to the book 'til the mid- to late '70s, at the earliest.

      I imagine at some time and place "Freaks" and "Nightmare Alley" have been shown as a double bill. Would be a nice idea for TCM to try.

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    2. Oh, L.E!
      I would love that! Talk about a night to throw a TCM Party. ha ha Maybe I'll suggest it to them.
      Page

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  14. sigh!! this is one of those films U R supposed to like, but I have never been able to sit thru it...some unbelievable plot and story lines...some garish shirts and clothes worn by TP...and shallow angst in his character...but that is just me...maybe another chance someday???

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    1. Doc, My first impulse was to say "to each his own" and leave it at that, but, instead, I suggest you give it another look. Stan's character suffers little angst through 90% of the film and when it comes it hardly seems shallow.

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  15. You did a fantastic job on this entry, beautifully combining the history of the author with Power's own quest to be taken seriously. I am a bit embarrassed to say that I have not seen this film, certainly a hole in my movie-viewing resume. But I will, and thanks to your entry, will fully appreciate what I will be watching.

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    1. CFB, Thank you! It interested me that both Power and Gresham were seeking something that eluded them. Gresham's story might seem more sympathetic - he was tormented, he had but one successful novel, he died at a relatively young age. Power is one of those who seems to have had everything, and early in life, but he was sensitive and intelligent enough to realize, too late, that he was trapped. Both the author and the actor understood Stan very well. If you have the Fox Movie Channel, "Nightmare Alley" airs about once a month.

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  16. This is an amazing post. Like Classicfilmboy, I have not seen this movie, either (and I can't believe it!) but, like him, I will more fully appreciate it when I do see it.

    Also, I think I'm going to see if our local library has a copy of the novel, "Nightmare Alley".

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    1. R.A., If you read "Nightmare Alley" as well as watch it (and I hope you do), I think you'll really appreciate the challenge Jules Furthman faced in writing the screenplay.

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  17. Eve, I'm late (as I have been with everything for a while), but I return with admiration for this wonderful piece. I have written about Nightmare Alley myself, for my own blog and for The Dark Pages, and I still found out things about its history in your piece that interested me greatly, particularly the history of the novel. Power was just tremendous, as was the rest of the cast, and deserved more praise than he got. I'm glad it has found its niche finally as a movie of merit.

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    1. Becky, I remember your post on "Nightmare Alley" at your blog and knew you were a fan. There was a "Nightmare Alley" event recently - I found out about it after I committed to do this piece and decided to wait to check it out until I finished my post. Great to hear from you again and know you're back in the blogosphere.

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  18. Eve, I'm truly wowed by your riveting post about NIGHTMARE ALLEY! You've really unearthed so many fascinating facts and so much food for thought. I'm glad that NA has become so much more compelling and better appreciated over time - BRAVA to you on your superb post!

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    1. Thanks, Dorian, I'm pleased, too, that "Nightmare Alley" has had a powerful resurgence - a second life, really. It's entirely deserving of all the attention and praise.

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