Nightmare Alley (1947). 110 minutes. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Starring Tyrone Power (as Stanton Carlisle), Joan Blondell (as Zeena Krumbein), Coleen Gray (as Molly Carlisle), Helen Walker (as Lilith Ritter), Taylor Holmes (as Ezra Grindle), Mike Mazurki (as Bruno), and Ian Keith (as Pete Krumbein).
Nightmare Alley is a wonderful, exceedingly suggestive, and excessively seedy film noir that follows its protagonist, a mesmerist, as he moves from small-time carnival barker to big-time con artist with legions of devotees. Its themes and atmosphere might quickly convince you that it belongs to the world of noir with its shadows, dark streets, con games, and untrustworthy strangers, but its budget might not. From the sprawling, ten-acre carnival set created for it on the 20th Century Fox backlot to other lush outdoor sets, and even the indulgent evening gowns worn by actress Coleen Gray, Nightmare Alley looks luxurious and expensive, unlike a typical film noir. In spite of its high-end look, the movie was not a success in its own time due to its intensely dark story. Today, however, it is considered to be a classic movie about the rise and fall of an ambitious, unscrupulous man, with suggestive and unsettling undertones that are reminiscent of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Its creepiness, like that of Freaks, is not soon forgotten.
The movie begins in a carnival replete with sideshow scams and so-called freak acts, where Stan Carlisle works as a barker for Zeena and Pete Krumbein’s mentalist show. But Pete is a horrible drunk, and Stan has designs to take his place. After Pete’s death, which Stan privately knows he is partially to blame for, Stan takes his place in Zeena’s act. Although Stan is driven and focused on advancing his career, he is sometimes distracted by the professional and personal life of the carnival geek, whom he considers to be the nadir of human existence.
After Stan learns the basics of how to defraud people, he moves on to a nightclub, taking carnival performer Molly with him. Through his stage show he comes to know Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist whom he learns is secretly recording her sessions with patients. Stan seizes the opportunity to work with Lilith and take advantage of her recordings to exploit her patients via his mesmerist act. He collects a large sum of money from prominent community members who believe his ability to read minds and contact the dead is real and who treat him like a guru, but a major con fails cataclysmically, and he learns that Lilith has turned on him and seized his fortune. He sends Molly away. Distraught and out of money, he turns to alcohol, eventually making his way back to the carnival, where he finds work doing what he has always abhorred—performing as the carnival geek. On his first night, he goes wild and runs through the fairgrounds screaming, but Molly is there to comfort him as he hits rock bottom: insane, in withdrawal, and working as the lowest form of life in the carnival world.
Although Nightmare Alley is now widely considered to be a classic example of film noir, it failed to connect with audiences during its initial release. The potential for this failure was something that concerned the filmmakers, and producer Darryl F. Zanuck initially argued in his memos to the screenwriters that the character Stan Carlisle was too sinister. While the film remains deeply pessimistic, some of Zanuck’s proposed changes worked to humanize the protagonist. In particular, early on we see Stan internalize a con of Pete’s that will stay with him throughout the film: Pete tells Stan that he can see him as a boy in a field with a cherished dog and an old grey-haired woman by a gate. Stan can identify that dog as his and the woman as his mother, but Pete explains to Stan that this is an old, universal confidence trick—most men had a dog as a child and a mother waiting for them. It is from Pete that Stan absorbs a great deal of mendacity; he also learns the secret code that Pete and Zeena use to communicate with each other while performing. But from Pete’s confidence trick about the dog, Stan also learns that he is susceptible to confidence games, and through that, he experiences his own vulnerability.
Stan is also shown to be vulnerable in his relationship to the demi-femme fatale Zeena Krumbein, the wife of alcoholic Pete and the person who teaches and tries to protect the ambitious Stan during his time at the carnival. Zeena is a fading star, a little older than Stan, weighed down by years of hard living with Pete and influenced unduly by the harsh verdict of the tarot deck she carries with her and often reads. She seems to have Stan’s best interests at heart and to think of him as a cherished and intimate partner, but when one night, gathered in a bar with her carnival coworkers, she learns that Stan has been more than friendly with young performer Molly, she encourages Molly’s man Bruno to choke Stan, nearly killing him. As Bruno does so, Zeena calls repeatedly for drinks for the “bride and groom,” celebrating with glee as Stan struggles to breathe. It is an exceedingly creepy scene.
This is one of our first inklings that the characters of Nightmare Alley can turn on each other quickly and completely, unlearning compassion and morphing into cruelty personified in the same scene. Of course, we know at this point that Stan is capable of bad things—he is involved in the death of Pete, for starters—but it is one thing for a movie to have a protagonist that tends towards the malicious; it is another for the same movie to offer us a multitude of malevolent supporting characters as well. The effect is that the story is peopled with compromised and horrifying personalities from beginning to end, creating little opportunity for relief.
This is a movie that thrives on disturbing reversals. It plays a kind of confidence game with us, much as Stan plays with his audience, seeking to inspire our trust in characters, then undermining our faith in what we know by frequently betraying our expectations. The person who takes the greatest advantage of Stan as he ascends the ladder of fame and manipulation and who exhibits the movie’s most calculated, chilling reversal is the psychiatrist Lilith Ritter. Although her job is ostensibly to help people, and initially she is critical of Stan and even offended by his nightclub performance, she herself is revealed to be a great con artist of a different variety. Secretly recording her patients’ sessions, she is, like Stan, an expert at extracting information and concealing her true intentions.
But whereas Stan’s deceptive performances involve publicly supplying strangers with seemingly supernatural information that they desperately wish to hear under the guise of entertainment, Lilith befriends Stan, providing him with intimate, collaborative support and sexual excitement off stage, one-on-one. Her betrayal of him is thus more than professional: it is personal, romantic, and (perhaps worst) psychological. Whereas Stan causes people to believe in the perpetual existence of loved ones in the world beyond, Lilith causes Stan to doubt that he is in control of his own mental life—suggesting to him that he has imagined their relationship, and that she is really treating him as a patient. As we hear her attempt to convince him that this is the case, a callous expression comes across her face, and we hear the sounds of the wailing circus geek from the movie’s early sequence at the carnival.
That sound could be described as a form of Chekhov’s gun (or rather, Chekhov’s geek)—the film quotes the geek’s scream at choice moments, and true to Chekhov’s principle, those quotations have a pointed payoff at the movie’s conclusion. Carnival geeks, for those of you not in the know, were part of a so-called freak act, in which men bit the heads off of live chickens. The geeks of Nightmare Alley are not shown actually doing this, but the original geek’s performance space is shown, with the heads of the crowd obscuring full view of him, and we see his barker placing two chickens on stage for him, declaring that it is time for the geek to feed. The chickens cluck and then squawk, but the movie does not show us what is happening explicitly.
It does not need to. Letting our imaginations supply the visuals for what the geek is doing is arguably more horrible than what the movie could show us. Nightmare Alley thus allows us to engage with our own fantasies through the power of suggestion, engaging us in a process much like Stan’s mesmerism. Stan is in the business of creating illusions, of using a few cues to imply that he knows more than he does. Like Stan’s act, the movie must only provide us with a few basic signals about what is transpiring at the geek show, and we do the rest of the work. Who then, we might wonder, is most responsible for the nightclub audience’s delusion or the dark images that our brains supply when the camera pans away through the crowd at the sideshow? The audience in both cases chooses to participate in the creation of the fantastic. Perhaps the difference is that as a film-going audience, we know the illusion is false—but part of the film’s point is that often in life, we find ourselves deprived of that insight, particularly when we truly want to believe.
The story of the nameless, screaming carnival geek and Stan’s descent raises important, cynical, and disturbing existential questions. We might wonder if in the movie’s twisted view, all roads lead back to the geek—for Stan and for all of us: back to where we started, no matter how we struggle to get away and make a different life for ourselves, and no matter how revered we become. Are we destined to assume the persona of what we have always dreaded and loathed? Must we live out the nightmares that we carry around inside of us? Is there no possibility of escape? In its treatment of these questions, Nightmare Alley is almost supernaturally fatalistic, insisting on probing the thinness of the line that exists for some of us between sanity and insanity, health and dysfunction, humanity and otherness.
But weirdly for Stan, it is only when he is living his nightmare as a geek at the movie’s conclusion that he seems most humane—weak, suffering, and human in spite of his being treated as a non-human, a freak. In his days as a thriving mentalist, his whole existence is a lie, including his relationship with Molly, but when he returns to the carnival as the geek, he is no longer acting, no longer manipulating. Nightmare Alley thus suggests that there is truth lingering in our nightmares, and notably, if there is the semblance of veracity within them, it becomes harder to justify dismissing them.
Perhaps that is one of the things that will make Nightmare Alley potentially difficult for audiences of any era to handle. The fact that the movie conveys its protagonist’s downfall with the emotional thrust of a bad dream makes it harder to reject as unfamiliar or impossible. Much like the geek’s screams, Nightmare Alley offers us something fearsome in an intangible way that we cannot easily combat with language. It is not an easy movie to shake.