Thursday 18 June 2020

Movie Review: Nightmare Alley (1947)

A dark story of unconstrained ambition, Nightmare Alley is a richly textured drama exploring the limits of human desire fueled by greed and delusion.

Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power) works with a scrappy traveling carnival, helping mentalist Zeena (Joan Blondell) with her show. She used to have a classy revue with Pete (Ian Keith) using a language code to pretend to read minds. Now Pete is reduced to a state of perpetual drunkenness.

Stan is an orphan, abandoned by his family at an early age and eventually raised in a convent. An ambitious risk-taker with a gift of oral communication, he seduces Zeena into teaching him the code, while romancing fellow carny Molly (Coleen Gray). He marries Molly and together they leave the carnival and use Zeena's code to establish a popular mentalist act at big city nightclubs.

But Stan wants more. He meets equally ambitious psychologist Lilith (Helen Walker), and her confidential audio recordings of patient sessions provide an opportunity to target the wealthy. Now encroaching into fraud, deception and profiting from private information, Stan creates a moral quandary for Molly.

A captivating character study, Nightmare Alley accompanies one man on a journey from the squalor of a cheap traveling carnival to the bright lights of swish big city and back again. Jules Furthman adapted the William Lindsay Gresham book into a powerful and purposeful script, packing poignant moments alongside performance highlights to track Stan's trajectory. Edmund Goulding directs with a firm hand and a noir spirit, maintaining control of a sprawling, multi-chapter story full of surprises.

Some moments reach exceptional heights of subtle emotion. In a long scene, the inebriated and quickly fading Pete demonstrates just how easy it is to create a beguiling illusion. Ever the quick study, Stan later puts this lesson to good use in distracting a Marshal intent on shutting down the carnival. Most profound is a stunning exchange between Molly and Stan, as she finally draws a line in the sand and confronts his out of control hubris.

Nightmare Alley is elevated by featuring three strong women characters. The seasoned Zeena has been around the block of fame and gives Stan his break after falling under his spell. Molly is the great love of his life and is devoted to her man, including any unconventional action needed to save him. And Lilith is his intellectual equivalent from the posh side of the tracks, and the one woman potentially as conniving as he is.

Exceptionally well defined, all three women remain true to who they are and abide by their principles, unmoved by Stan's fluctuating fortunes. They are brought to life by stellar performances from Joan Blondell (wary), Coleen Gray (ardent) and Helen Walker (icy).

Meanwhile Tyrone Power delivers what is probably the best performance of his career. Personable, irresistible, capable, dangerous, seductive, scheming and rapacious but never exaggerated, Power finds space for all of Stan's complexities in an astounding milestone.

Uncompromising and meticulously crafted, Nightmare Alley is a dream achievement.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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