Powerful and unusual melodrama Nightmare Alley marked a radical change of direction for its star, Tyrone Power who was taking a calculated risk playing a totally unsympathetic character. It was a move that was to win him critical plaudits and he regarded his performance as the best of his career but Power’s fans were unable to accept him as the unscrupulous anti-hero.
Power plays an opportunistic sideshow barker in a seedy carnival who steals the secret code used in their mind-reading act by JOAN BLONDELL and IAN KEITH, unintentionally causing the latter’s death. He and his wife, COLEEN GRAY, leave the carnival where, after a period in nightclubs as “The Great Stanton, Mentalist”, he teams up with bogus psychologist HELEN WALKER to fleece wealthy clients. He forces his wife to become part of the act but, during a bout of fake spiritualism, she inadvertently reveals him as a fake. Making his escape, Power becomes an alcoholic and ends up first as a hobo and then as a carnival freak who, for a bottle of liquor a day and a place to sleep, bites the heads off live chickens as a side-show attraction…
Impressive support came from Blondell, Gray, Walker, Keith and MIKE MAZURKI as the carnival strong man, and there was a memorably etched performance from TAYLOR HOLMES as an aged industrialist who believes that Power will be able to help him communicate with his dead sweetheart and gives him $150,000 to build a tabernacle.
Edmund Goulding’s careful and atmospheric direction, the effective screen adaptation of Gresham’s novel by Jules Furthman, Lee Garmes’ expressionistic low-key monochrome cinematography and Cyril Mockridge’s eerie and apposite score, allied to Power’s central performance, gave Nightmare Alley a considerable power which still impresses even in these liberated times of overt screen gore and horror.
(The circus featured in the film, incidentally, was the Patterson-Yankee carnival, which was rented by the studio and rebuilt on ten acres of the Twentieth Century-Fox back-lot).
USA / Twentieth Century Fox / 112 minutes / 1947 filmed in black and white
Writer: Jules Furthman / Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham / Music: Cyril Mockridge / Cinematography: Lee Garmes / Producer: George Jessel / Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Ian Keith, Mike Mazurki, James Flavin, Roy Roberts