In Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power plays one slick charlatan feeding off the gullibility of old ladies. This cat’s got charm and smoky eyes that could floor a rhino. It might be one of my favorite noir roles, even if I think he deserved a much harsher punishment in the end. This film is cool because it doesn’t revolve around cops or private investigators going after gangsters (in the traditional sense). It’s set in the dark underworld of carnies and provides some surface insight on how they rope in suckers, fleece them, and pull up stakes for the next town. And when carnies start betraying each other and can’t trust their own, you know you’re in for some shit.
Stanton Carlisle (Powell) is an ambitious carnie with big dreams of sold out theater halls and personal massages. He works with a mind-reader named Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her whiskey-soaked husband. After a bit of carnival tragedy, Stanton learns Zeena’s super secret code that allows her to “read minds” and uses it to propel himself to mild stardom. He takes up the unoriginal moniker “The Great Stanton” and performs mainly in dinner clubs where he reads the minds of naive old bags. They eat his bullshit up like cookies.
When Stanton ditched the carnival, he took along with him Molly, played by the impossibly adorable Coleen Gray. As Stanton’s fame grows, so does his desire for greater shams, including a particularly mean spirited one aimed at a wealthy elderly woman. All the lies eventually wear out Molly, whose conscious forces her to leave Stanton behind for the straight and narrow.
You can kinda guess where this is going. In noir, what goes up must come down HARD. But I never felt that Stanton came down hard enough. He devolves into a boozer and has nowhere left to turn but back to the carnival, where he becomes a geek – the lowest of the low. By some kinda carnie miracle, he’s reunited with Molly, who pledges to rehabilitate him. Get outta my face with this happy ending! Stanton is a scumbag who uses people (even his wife!) to feed his volcanic ego. He hasn’t earned redemption just because he lost everything and now bites the heads off of chickens! Bullshit!
Director Edmund Goulding (who had been a filmmaker since the fucking 1920s) does a terrific job painting the dark world of the carnival. The nighttime scenes in particular look sharp and ominous. The scene in which Stanton’s world unravels is incredibly eerie and dips into the horror genre a bit. Overall Nightmare Alley is a morally dark film, as well as super tough and entertaining.