Nightmare Alley (1947)

Dir. Edmund Goulding. Starring Tyrone Power, Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell

Everyone has a few quotes that rattle around in their brains in perpetuity for no good reason at all. Here’s one of mine:

Gillis: They’re pretty hot for it over at Twentieth, but I think Zanuck’s all wet. Can you see Ty Power as a shortstop? You’ve got the best man for it right here on this lot: Alan Ladd. Good change of pace for Alan Ladd.

from Sunset Boulevard (1950)

If Darryl Zanuck had wanted Tyrone Power to play a rookie shortstop in the late ’40s, then yes, he would indeed have been all wet. In the 1940s, your shortstop was either basically slim and rangy (Lou Boudreau, Joe Cronin) or comically small (Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese). Power does not look like a shortstop, being as well-built as he is, and in truth I cannot believe him as a ballplayer at all, which, of course, only makes Joe Gillis sound even more like he rehearsed this particular spiel for the studio executive who is barely listening. Ballplayers on screen are Gary Cooper and John Cusack, guys who seem so well-meaning that you can’t help but believe in their guileless approach to the game. Thus the tragedy especially of Buck Weaver in Eight Men Out, who was honest enough not to participate in the Black Sox scandal but not bold enough to report the fix, or the tragedy of Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees, who the film paints as the true aspirational figure in American sports while literally Babe Ruth looks on in multiple scenes. There is no Cooper or young Cusack in Tyrone Power, a man who you can find time and again as a heroic figure but always with a twist. Over and over again, Power insists to people, “Mister, I was made for it,” a statement of how perfect he is for that carnival life, that show business existence, the magic of the con. It’s hard to disagree with the claim.

Tyrone Power, with that devilish smile and that dark flash in his dark eyes, is a brilliant fit for Stan Carlisle. It was a picture that Power wanted to make, wanted to star in. Perhaps that extra effort spurred him on, or perhaps he was never meant to be a saint. Watch him the year before in The Razor’s Edge and you can see how playing straight simply doesn’t suit him that well. His best scene is probably the one that takes place in a coal town in Western Europe, interacting over beer with an educated miner, and the many more scenes making a point of Larry Darrell’s sainthood next to Elliott Templeton’s posturing snobbery or Isabel Bradley Maturin’s sneering intrigues don’t draw us in because of Power. He was meant for the stage, but not the stage that perseveres under neon. Power is meant for a stage where people get close enough to touch his shoes with an outstretched hand, to smell what he just walked through or to smell the stale sweat of the little outfits he throws on and off with thoughtless aplomb. What Power possesses is a kind of animal magnetism, to be wielded against lesser beings that fling themselves at those stages and beg to be fooled in order to give everyone a good time. In the film’s introductory sequence, he’s part of an act which takes up the questions of the crowd, “burns” the papers they’re on, and then the soothsayer, Zeena (Blondell) answers those questions. That her late-stage alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith) is sitting underneath a trapdoor holding up a chalkboard with the questions and names is not in the minds of the mesmerized, and they didn’t come to Zeena’s act in order to pick it apart. Stan rings them in with promises, sets up the performance, collects the papers, makes the swap with some empty ones to burn onstage (the showoff), and then supervises Pete as he wearily writes down the inquiries for Zeena. Power is perfect in that early chapter. He’s confident and bold, just up to that line where it might be offputting; one looks at him and wants to make the mistake that his zeal has more to do with enthusiasm for this rough life than it is as much a smokescreen as the burning “questions” in front of Zeena.

What makes Tyrone Power perfect for this movie in a way that, say, Alan Ladd would not have been is how convincingly he can play a lover without ever having to ride a horse. He is the sexiest man on the carnival campus and he is acutely aware of it, understands that he can flaunt his position as the dreamboat of this rinky-dink carnival which can barely get away with housing a geek and use it to get what he wants. This power of suggestion works well on men—there’s a longish scene in there where law enforcement drops by to close down the carnival and Stan, remarkably, fortune cookies him into leaving everyone alone—but Stan expects to lasso women like he lassos a crowd. His first mark is Zeena, whose beauty is fading and whose husband is far past his prime; Zeena cares for him sincerely but drags her feet about sending him to a cure while she pursues her secret dalliance with Stan. It’s a ruse that fooled me too, for a few minutes. Without context, it certainly seems reasonable enough for Stan to have decided on this woman who’s one good bender away from being a widow, who possesses roadshow savoir faire, who is about as elegant a dame as one finds in this racket. Power is so believable as someone who is genuinely enjoying Blondell, and the giveaway is more in her than in him; you can watch Blondell play Zeena gratefully, and that’s the suicide note for the relationship. Even her wariness about Stan’s future, which proves to be well-founded, is one which casts her in a flaccidly feminized way. It’s not that the tarot cards she knows so well are wrong about Stan’s future; it’s that she uses those cards, which are inevitably coded as female, and which ultimately remove her from the run of the story. Women deal the cards and men play the hands.

It turns out that this affair is a prelude to a relatively intricate plan to off the precariously placed Pete, who used to be at the center of a pretty remarkable act with Zeena. Using a code based on intonations and particular phrases—I love how the film allows you to believe there is a code by varying dialogue just a smidge—Pete and Zeena had a highly effective act together. Stan learns the code from Zeena after Pete’s hastened death and then turns his affections elsewhere. Molly (Gray) is younger than Zeena and prettier. For all the mystic suggestions of Zeena’s occult performance, it’s pretty short of belly-dancing or other Orientalist sexuality. It’s sort of hard to know what Molly does besides wear skimpy clothing, which is part of what gets the carnival in trouble at one stop and proves, in so doing, why she’s wearing leotards all the time. It does not appear to have been part of Stan’s plan to get hitched to Molly once their affair is discovered, but when it does happen, he makes chicken salad out of the situation.

There’s some sly commentary on Power’s star image as a ladykiller or, I mean, the fact that he was just abundantly good-looking. In the very beginning of the movie someone comments on Stan’s predilection for skirt-chasing, which is a fundamental misreading of Stan’s game. He likes the company of attractive women as much as the next guy, and unlike the next guy he is extraordinarily skilled at getting that company. But he also realizes what these attractive women do for him, and he does not make a leap for them unless he can see how gilded the lilypad he’s landing on might be. Zeena was not an idle affair, and neither was Molly, who aside from being the classic distracting pretty face in his supper club act is also fluent in the code he needs to do his mind-reading bit. Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), the third woman in his life, is almost as meaningfully courted as Zeena. The two of them are a great match for one another. At a show of his (where he is now going by “the Great Stanton”), Lilith immediately picks up the way that Molly’s speech informs Stan’s performance. She decides she’s going to humiliate Stan as a kind of fake by lying about her deceased mother; Stan, even blindfolded, picks up on the deceptive nature of her question and manages to lay her low in front of the crowd. It’s the last time he beats her, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory. It convinces Stan that Lilith might be as easy a mark as the carnival gals, in the long run, and when he gets into a con with her that pays her off while expanding his earning potential, he gets on the wrong end of things quickly. Stan underestimates Lilith, whose given name is redolent with the symbolism of Adam’s first wife and whose last name suggests a haute bourgeois sophistication, colored with a presumably Jewish outsider quality, and in the end she is the ultimate victor in which, like Sunset Boulevard, a taker gets took.

The film suffers a little bit once Walker becomes the most important woman. Part of the issue is that Walker is not as good an actress as Blondell, and that Walker’s cold snap presentation is a less effective pairing for Power’s deceitful charisma than Gray’s wide-eyed wonder. Goulding shoots her from a distance as well, often as not, which keeps us at a distance from her as well. Gray is far more often the recipient of close-ups from Goulding, an old veteran who understood how to build sympathy for the right people. The other troubling aspect is that the film about the Great Stanton and Helen Walker gets a little Boethian for my tastes. Nightmare Alley has set up Stan to become a Pete almost from the beginning, and thus making Molly a Zeena. Watching Stan take a nearly identical roller coaster ride to what we assume Pete went on, down to the crippling alcoholism both surrender to, is unfortunately neat. The film is a little bit trapped by this insistence on a wheel of fortune. It would be one thing to watch this efficient snake charmer get a little too confident and have to suffer from a nasty bite from the slinkiest of his lady cobras. It’s another thing entirely to lock in the utter precision of one man’s fate and give it to another for the sake of sending a less interesting message within a less interesting story.

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