“He reached too high.”
Nightmare Alley follows the rise and fall of conman Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power). Fascinated by carnival life, Stan works with the washed-up “Mademoiselle Zeena” (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith). He learns that the pair has created a code that let her seem to have mental powers, but she won’t tell.
Ambitious and ruthless, Stan tries to seduce Zeena, but she remains faithful to her husband and keeps her secret. When Stan accidentally gives Pete wood alcohol instead of moonshine, he dies, and Zeena takes Stan on as her assistant in the mind-reading act.
As he practices the act with Zeena, Stan woos the younger Molly (Coleen Gray). He is forced into a shotgun marriage by the carnies, including strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki), but Stan uses the opportunity to leave Zeena and the carnival behind. He becomes “The Great Stanton” and performs in expensive nightclubs.
Of course, Stan’s ambition does not stop here, and he rises higher into the atmosphere of the wealthy, posing as a psychic who can summon the dead. But all the rises must fall, and at his apparent pinnacle Stan finds himself the victim of a con. And it goes downhill from there.
But I’ll leave Stan’s fate and the film’s denouement a surprise.
One of the most interesting facets of the film is its casting of Tyrone Power. Wanting to expand his repertoire beyond romantic and swashbuckler roles that brought him to fame, Power bought the rights to the novel on which the film is based so he could take the lead role.
Because I had hoped to show Hangover Square this week but found it removed from YouTube, Power’s self-casting is doubly powerful. Laird Cregar was a brilliant actor who crash dieted on amphetamines and died after playing his first non-villain role in 1945, having hoped it might bring him romantic leads in future. By contrast, the matinee idol Tyrone Power used his bankroll to buy his way into a more complex, villainous role because he was sick of how his good looks typecast him. Sadly, both Power and Cregar died of sudden heart attacks, cutting short careers that might have stretched many years further. (I’ll always especially lament Cregar’s tragic end, for it illustrated the extremes which Hollywood demands for the honor of being identified as desirable.)
Please join the #BNoirDetour gang for Nightmare Alley at 9pm et this Sunday, 12/20.