Friday, February 11, 2011

Ruthless Geek: Tyrone Power's Nightmare Alley

Power knew that Stanton Carlisle would be the role of a lifetime. Critics said Power played an "utterly reprehensible charlatan" who was "unscrupulous."

“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.”

The plot of Nightmare Alley

Carlisle tells other carnies that he was raised in an orphanage and that his parents were not very interested in him. He also admits that he faked religious devotion to make his life in the orphanage more bearable. Carlisle is ambitious and wants to work a scam that will reward him handsomely. Stanton works the crowd for the carnival’s phony prophetess, Zeena (Joan Blondell). He knows that she and her now broken-down drunk husband Pete (Ian Keith) were once the top mentalist act on the circuit, and he is angling to get the code from either of them so he can move up the ladder of the carnival world. He is having an affair with Zeena, but she won’t betray her husband, whom she still loves.

One night Carlisle tries to pry the secret out of Pete and offers him a bottle of booze. He unwittingly gave him a bottle of wood alcohol and Pete dies. Shortly thereafter Zeena gives in and tell him the code. Then the two of them begin to work the act in the carnival. Carlisle has bigger fish to fry, so he leaves the carnival, marrying Molly, the “electric girl” (Coleen Gray).

They take off for Chicago and push the act to a higher level. But then in steps the femme-fatale, a psychiatrist named Lilith (Helen Walker). She is running her own scam with her wealthy patients and lures Stanton into working together with her to set up the biggest con yet. Lilith turns the tables on Carlisle and everything that he’s worked for begins to unravel. Stanton ends up a drunk hopping freight cars. Eventually he ends up back at the carnival--willing to do any job they offer him.

Nightmare Alley: Morality Play and Film Noir

Nightmare Alley has many of the trapping of both a morality play and film noir. Carlisle has a religious quality to him as he gains confidence,power and money playing his mentalist act. His downfall may have something to do with divine intervention as punishment for what could be perceived as Carlisle's "playing God."

The chiaroscuro lighting is typical of film noir, as is the appearance of the femme-fatate in the person of Lilith the psychiatrist. The author of My Blog writes that there's a "peculiar redefinition of the femme fatale, who is reimagined as an almost androgynous and sexually ambiguous intellectual dominatrix; and even for a noir, the eventual depths to which our 'hero' sinks defies belief."

The role of a lifetime for Tyrone Power

Power knew he had something special when he bought the rights to Nightmare Alley. It was the crowning achievement of his career. The New York Times says of his performance, "Mr. Power has a juicy role and sinks his teeth into it, performing with considerable versatility and persuasiveness." The Self-Styled Siren writes that when Carlisle returns to the carnival at the end and desperately accepts a job, "Tyrone Power's still-beautiful face is as psychologically bare as any actor in noir."


T.M.P. "Nightmare Alley. At the Mayfair." The New York Times. October 10, 1947.

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