Director: Edmund Goulding
Producer: George Jessel
Screenwriter: Jules Furthman
Cinematographer: Lee Garmes
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Studio: 20th Century Fox 1947
Main Acting: Tyrone Power and Coleen Gray
To kick off the final ten film noirs of the countdown, here are my top ten reasons (in no particular order) why Nightmare Alley deserves the #10 spot.
10. Back when I discussed the I Walk Alone selection, I made the statement that Mike Mazurki was my favorite peripheral noir character who would resurface throughout the genre. Born in what is now the Ukraine, Mike made a habit of appearing in wonderful little roles throughout the classic era. His filmography boasts such impressive turns as Murder My Sweet, Dark City, The Shanghai Gesture, Night And The City, the above mentioned I Walk Alone, and finally, Nightmare Alley. His role as Bruno the strongman is perhaps his best in noir or at least the equal of his work as Moose Malloy and The Strangler.
9. In a perfect world, every journeyman director will eventually contribute a classic film to an unsuspecting public. Either due to some momentarily crazed inspiration that had once gone missing, or finally because some producer or studio felt it necessary to hand over a worthwhile property. In 1947, Edmund Goulding finally achieved this glorious distinction by directing Nightmare Alley. You can all scream Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, and Razor’s Edge as loud as possible, but for me this film is where immortality for this particular filmmaker truly rests.
8. In one of the most effective noir studies of the darkness lurking within us all, Stanton is not worried or concerned with stepping over anyone to achieve his ambitious goals. Swindling suffering customers, seducing women that could get him ahead, and leaving behind friends and acquaintances who become worthless to his desired destination are effectively surveyed. A world where the upcoming road is all that matters and running over hapless pedestrians is a necessity. A fill-in for the seediness of the entertainment industry where souls inevitably get chewed up and spit out when their usefulness has expired. Nightmare Alley hits its thematic concerns as effectively as any classic noir ever made.
7. A longtime professional cinematographer contributes sterling photography to enhance the overall worth of Nightmare Alley. Lee Garmes is a name that does not automatically pop out when I think of the greats of that era. Yet watch the sequence 20 minutes into the movie as Stanton walks through a darkened closed for business carnival to visit Charlie and borrow a quart of alcohol. As he makes his trek through the fog and cricket soundtracked area, we see the visual splendor that noir can provide us. The shadows of the trees reflecting off the vehicles is magnificent. We know what genre we have been dropped into, and we are thankful.
6. Similar to Dick Powell, Tyrone Power was basically typecast for a different kind of film throughout his career. Usually found in a swashbuckler role or as a romantic lead, he desperately wanted the role of Stanton. Legend has it that he fought tooth and nail to get Nightmare Alley made with him as the lead. Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck was not particularly keen on Powers taking such a dark turn in his mostly levity-packed career. Thankfully, the actor’s perseverance paid off and the film was made with an A budget. Noir can claim another worthwhile addition in the canon.
5. Great lines of dialogue are included in a script that is grade A material. Jules Furthman contributes a stupendous screenplay taken from the novel of the same name written by William Lindsay Gresham. “There is only one thing this stuff will make you forget. How to forget.” Like any good film noir, the words are filled with symbolic potency that always contain additional meaning. “How can a guy sink so low … He reached too high.” The sentiment that every boy has a dog also makes one realize that every boy can also become the geek.
4. Watching how things can change quickly in our tumultuous world leads to the realization that the last sentence of selection five is the aching broken heart of the movie. Just like success is possible for everyone, the chances of ending up like the unfortunate geek are also true. Reminiscent of Kafka’s The Hunger Artist, the geek is one who has slowly stopped being essential and instead wilts away into obscurity in his lonely cage for everyone to forget. An important lesson for those who exploit others for their own benefits and welfare. Nightmare Alley is profound in its dark message.
3. Predictably, this was a box office failure on release. The fact that we all can watch it on DVD is probably due to the fact that Nightmare Alley became categorized as film noir when the term became more widely used after a time. Finally released in 2005 as part of the Fox Film Noir Set, it supposedly went through many legal loopholes before seeing the light of day. Would Nightmare Alley be so easily available for purchase without the loyal and growing fanbase of film noir? Thankfully, it has been rescued from obscurity to take its place at the pinnacle of the movement.
2. A classic story of the rise and fall of an individual in Nightmare Alley is brilliantly conveyed with no punches pulled. Perhaps my main love of this Goulding film is that there is no place for sentimentality or compromise. Every sordid deed is expressed and conveyed properly. The talent involved was cognizant of the fact that real life should not be glossed over with the typical Hollywood approach. A downbeat examination of human flaws and consequences is rendered just right. It’s very ambitious and filled with an almost modern intensity that traverses over much ground without losing its clinical focus on the evil that men do.
1. Because my subjective opinion deems it so!!! Also, because it’s imperative that this film grow in stature as one of the best American films of the 40s period.