“Its carnival setting early on…brings to mind Tod Browning’s Freaks,” writes the My Blog author of the 1947 film, Nightmare Alley. Carny Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is watching the sideshow geek, whose “act” involves biting heads off of chickens. We don’t see the geek. The camera is locked on the barker and his banter. Then we hear the geek scream--and see Stanton’s reaction.
“How does a guy become a geek?” he asks a fellow carny. The question is answered through the unfolding of the plot and conclusion of Nightmare Alley.
Nightmare Alley was the pet project of star Tyrone Power, who purchased the rights to the novel of the same name by William Gresham. The star then convinced Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century Fox to sanction the project. It got a big budget and everything associated with Nightmare Alley was A-list. This film is one of the “darkest” noirs to come out of the 1940s. Tyrone Power wanted a vehicle to show that he could act, and boy did he pick a doozy. Power was an incredibly handsome leading man at 20th Century Fox and the roles that he usually played were romantic or swashbuckling--but not the kind of parts to show off any skill as an actor. Power wanted to be respected as an actor, not just known as a leading man and movie star.
Critical acclaim for Power in Nightmare Alley
The character of Stanton Carlisle is the antithesis of every role Power ever portrayed. The New York Times review of 1947 said that Power is “playing an utterly reprehensible charlatan” and that there is “little in the way of human wickedness that Mr. Power doesn’t do as the slick-tongued carnival spieler…” The review in Variety of late 1946 says of Power’s role, “Ruthless and unscrupulous, he uses the women in his life to further his advancement, stepping on them as he climbs.” Writing in 2007, the Self-Styled Siren says in her blog, “That Power worked so hard to put Nightmare’s Stanton Carlisle on the screen tell you something about him as an actor….[Power] fought long and hard for the chance to play the lead in a movie that equates entertainment with fraud and ends with his character barely hanging onto humanity.”