|Woodcut print by Guy Budziak|
|Geek show, Nightmare Alley|
|William Lindsay Gresham|
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|
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|
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.
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)