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A sideshow barker goes from mind reader to society spiritualist, then to carnival geek.
The long-awaited emergence of Nightmare Alley into the light of DVD should achieve two things: make a legendary film noir available to a new generation, and restore the horrific charge to the lately watered-down term geek, a concept that once had the power to give people very bad dreams indeed.
To his lasting credit, Tyrone Power--20th Century Fox's extraordinarily handsome but not terribly interesting star of the '30s and '40s--begged for the chance to play Stan Carlisle, the predatory charmer who snakes his way through this bracingly unwholesome story. A spieler for--and lover of--carnival mind reader Zeena (Joan Blondell), he displays uncanny skill at "reading" the susceptible rubes, including a tough sheriff who turns to jelly after Stan psychs him out. Once Stan's mastered the intricate code used in Zeena's act, he's set to dump her for the younger, sexier Molly (Coleen Gray) and go bigtime as nightclub psychic "Stanton the Great." After that, it's only a blasphemous bank shot to superstardom as a miracle worker with his own tabernacle and radio show.
Few '40s films ventured as deeply into cynicism as Nightmare Alley, or dealt so frankly with sexuality (with ripplings of polymorphous perversity yet) and power-tripping. The movie's rhythm is uncertain and Jules Furthman's screenplay telegraphs things, but the overall tone is remarkable, as are individual sequences: the freaky forced marriage of Stan and Molly in accordance with carny morality, and a creepy night scene in a park when Stanton the Great raises a ghost for a high-society client. Cinematographer Lee Garmes's chiaroscuro creates a relief map of the carnival world and what passes for life there. As for the geek... well, you'll find out what geek means. Stan does. --Richard T. Jameson
- Theatrical trailer
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Top customer reviews
This was an unusual and complex movie, even for Fox, which during this period was tossing off excellent, but more routine back-alley-and-criminals Noirs as casually as it did its dialog comedies. Legend has it that Tyrone Power begged for the part, knowing it might help him display the kind of acting chops not usually on view in the more stalwart type of hero he usually portrayed. The film, on initial release, was not successful -- really, it took years of critical support lasting into the age of home video before NIGHTMARE ALLEY took off. Today, it is considered essential Noir, and with a movie so well and richly cast, so introspective yet so psychologically intense, it belongs in every Noir fan's library. Younger children might not understand it, though.
The last sentence of dialogue said it all, "How did he fall so low? He reached too high".