Upon the film’s original release, reviews were mixed.
The New York Times review commented,
- If one can take any moral value out of Nightmare Alley it would seem to be that a terrible retribution is the inevitable consequence for he who would mockingly attempt to play God. Otherwise, the experience would not be very rewarding for, despite some fine and intense acting by Mr. Power and others, this film traverses distasteful dramatic ground and only rarely does it achieve any substance as entertainment.
The Variety review complimented the film’s acting, noting that:
- Nightmare Alley is a harsh, brutal story [based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham] told with the sharp clarity of an etching … Most vivid of these is Joan Blondell as the girl he works for the secrets of the mind-reading act. Coleen Gray is sympathetic and convincing as his steadfast wife and partner in his act and Helen Walker comes through successfully as the calculating femme who topples Power from the heights of fortune back to degradation as the geek in the carney. Ian Keith is outstanding as Blondell’s drunken husband.
In a 2000 review of the film in The Village Voice, writer J. Hoberman commented, “This 1947 account of an archetypal American’s rise and fall is neither a great movie nor even a classic noir but it has a great ambition to be daring and, once seen, is not easily forgotten. The movie suggested far more than it showed but what it showed, including the climactic degradation of 20th Century Fox’s then-major star Tyrone Power, was remarkably sordid for so high-profile a release.”
The film is now regarded as an exemplary film noir and as one of Power’s finest performances and has a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Unforgettably creepy noir with Power, Blondell, Walker
As other commentators have noted, once you’ve seen this film it haunts you. The creepy carnival milieu has rarely been better done (well, Tod Browning’s “Freaks” of course) but seems more wholesome than the upscale world of nightclub mentalists and corrupt psychiatrists to which Tyrone Power ascends. Joan Blondell is carnally blowzy but she’s almost upstaged by the ill-starred actress Helen Walker (the duplicitous wife in Impact) as that double-crossing shrink. No one soon forgets Power’s slippery climb to the top followed by his horrifying fall. This film is a true, dark classic.
Among the Greatest of Films Noirs
Author: mackjay from Out there in the dark
12 March 2002
NIGHTMARE ALLEY works like a gigantic fate-driven machine. We see the main character, Stanton Carlyle (memorably enacted by Tyrone Power whose physical beauty underlines his tragic persona) become caught up in the cogs of this machine early on, when he gets the idea of taking over the mind-reading act. Henceforward, it’s a dark, descending spiral. A fascinating spiral, since it appears to be going upward at first. Power and the beautiful Colleen Gray enter in to the venues of the ultra-rich with their glorified carnival act. Then Gray and and earlier amanuensis Joan Blondell are supplanted by the controlled, mysterious Helen Walker (in a knockout performance). What is so intriguing now, is how Carlyle begins to believe in his own manufactured powers. Thinking himself in control of the cynical ploy concocted by himself and Walker, Carlyle is tossed into a pit of dejection and humiliation, when Gray foils the scheme. Back on the carnival skids–but this time far lower than he was before–Carlyle can find only the possibility of redemption in Gray’s embrace.
It is tempting to wish the film would end with Gray turning away from the horrific spectacle of the new geek. For this would be the darkest of noir conclusions. I seem to remember the studio (Fox) insisting on the glimmer of hope on Power’s face.
Its conclusion aside, the film impresses in its use of expressionistic lighting, set design and music to create a feeling of inescapable, malevolent force driving Stanton Carlyle to ultimate degradation. This is a film in which no production element seems wasted. It’s almost too good be be true, an ideal ‘dark film’, grotesque, yet hauntingly beautiful.
obscure but memorable
Author: blanche-2 from United States
31 July 2004
It is totally amazing, nearly 60 years later, to realize the lengths that 20th Century Fox went to in order to keep Tyrone Power a handsome leading man rather than letting him show his stuff. It’s no wonder Fox came to disgrace during the Cleopatra era. Pity it didn’t happen earlier so Power had more opportunities to show his acting range.
Nightmare Alley was a favorite of mine from the time I was a teenager -a film Power fought to make and one that the studio never publicized and released as a B film. Spiteful bunch, considering the money he had made for them! Power, Blondell, Gray, Helen Walker, and the marvelous Ian Keith turn in great performances in a gritty film somewhat ahead of its time for its unrelenting toughness, its hard view of alcoholism, a look inside the world of mentalists and carnival life, and its theme of the supernatural. It is reminiscent of “Ace in the Hole” and some of the later, cynical Wilder films.
Power was one of those actors whose drop dead gorgeous appearance kept him from some excellent roles, thanks to his studio. He sometimes could appear rigid (though not in this film) but someone I knew saw him in a Broadway play and said it was like being alone in a room with him, he had such magnetism. We have so few examples of his really great work – the recording of John Brown’s Body is one, this film is another – it’s great that it’s now out on DVD and available to the public.
Tyrone Power’s finest hour.
Author: merrywood from Connecticut
5 February 2005
This anomalous drama, light years ahead of its time in 1947, is set in a rustic time and place of American history. This is the Carnivals that once traveled from town to town where for a couple of hours the tedious routine of hard working people of the small towns and farms across the land could be shattered as a result of having their minds stretched by bizarre sideshows and their pockets emptied with fixed games of chance favoring the establishment.
By 1947 Tyrone Power, once considered one of the handsomest young men in the picture business, had established himself as one of Hollywood’s leading stars. However his career was now on the downhill side of the climb. Thus, he needed a shot-in-the-arm powerful role. In this extraordinary concept and novel to movie story of human karma he found it. The nomenclature of Geek had a far different denotation than it does today. Here we get a front seat look at the full impact of its original meaning. Nightmare Alley is the true career showcase for Power’s range as an actor. He is superb in this unforgettable portrayal.
Film Noir so black, the DVD may stain your fingers
Author: imogensara_smith from New York City
4 July 2006
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An old carnival mind-reader launches into his spiel: gazing into his “crystal ball” (a liquor bottle) he sees rolling green hills, a barefoot boy running through the grass, a dog at his side… “Yes, yes!” his listener eagerly confirms, at which the mentalist reveals it’s just a stock reading: “Every boy has a dog,” he laughs scornfully. Nightmare Alley is about the weaknesses of the human mind, the need for emotional comfort and assurance that leads people to trust tarot cards and psychics, not to mention religion and psychoanalysis. It’s about how these weaknesses can be exploited and about the high cost—for the exploiter.
Nightmare Alley opens at a seedy carnival offering a strongman, scantily clad girls, a mind-reader, and the “geek,” a grotesque and pitiful freak who bites the heads off live chickens for shock entertainment. The carnival is gorgeously filmed, from the sweaty crowds and banners to the foggy, deserted midway late at night. Circulating among the crowds is a new carny-worker, Stanton Carlisle, a gum-chewing hunk in a t-shirt watching the old hands at work. He’s particularly intrigued by a verbal code that Zeena, the mentalist, once used in a highly successful mind-reading act, before her partner Pete became a hopeless drunk. Stan is obviously unscrupulous, ambitious, and ready to use his wiles on Zeena, but we don’t see his true nature until a scene in which he saves the carnival by bluffing a sheriff (who has come to shut the place down) with a display of his “second sight.” His face shining like a choir boy’s, he spouts vague, sentimental mumbo-jumbo, manipulating and feeding off the man’s emotions until he’s putty in Stan’s hands—and Stan loves every minute of it, reveling in his power, the primal joy of fooling a chump.
We learn that Stan was raised in an orphanage, where the combination of mistreatment and bible verses instilled a deep cynicism about faith and morality. In reform school he learned to get out of trouble by feigning spiritual conversion. Handsome, glib, charming, intelligent and shameless, Stan holds all the cards. He’s lucky, too: Pete dies after Stan, who wants to get him drunk to pick his brains, inadvertently gives him wood alcohol instead of moonshine. (No one, including Stan, is ever sure if it was really an accident.) Stan teams up with Zeena and learns the code, then cheats on her with beautiful young Molly, and when they’re forced to marry by Molly’s enraged former boyfriend, he takes the opportunity to blow the carnival for a high-class nightclub act.
Still unsatisfied, Stan drifts into spiritualism, bilking wealthy clients in exchange for contacting their dead loved ones. He finally goes too far, talking his wife into impersonating the ghost of one man’s dead sweetheart; and he meets his match in Dr. Lilith Ritter, an icy psychiatrist who conspires with Stan only to cheat him. Since Stan’s identity is built on his ability to cheat and feel superior to others, when someone else does the same to him, he falls apart. Stan’s crack-up and rapid descent into alcoholic degradation happen a little too fast, but they’ve been foreshadowed from the beginning. Stan has always had a morbid fascination with the geek, and with Pete’s disintegration: they speak to a hollowness at the heart of him, the lack of any love or faith. This one vulnerability in his otherwise hard-boiled character is what allows the audience to care about him, to see him as tragic and not merely a heel who gets what he deserves. The obviously tacked-on “happy” ending is laughable; the love of a good woman won’t save this guy.
Matinée idol Tyrone Power, freed from the limitations of swashbuckling, is perfect as Stanton Carlisle, an homme fatale who blatantly exploits his good looks and sex appeal, even making a declaration of love to his wife (maybe honestly, maybe not) to get her to participate in a despicable scheme. It’s hard even for the viewer, who sees how callous and selfish Stan is, to resist his oily brilliance and amorality. Power was eager to play this complex and unsympathetic role, and he does it justice, at the end of the movie undergoing a more thorough de-glamorization than any classic Hollywood beauty. Joan Blondell, no longer the bright-eyed cutie of the early ’30s, is superb as Zeena: blowsy, aging but still attractive, she’s a sharp yet good-hearted woman who sees through Stan, even if she can’t fight her yen for him.
Colleen Gray looks lovely and acts adequately in the ingenue role of Stan’s ever faithful wife Molly, and Helen Walker is chilling as Dr. Ritter, the only person smarter and more ruthless than Stan. Her eyes shine with joy as she reveals what a fool she’s made of Stan and cruelly mocks his mental weakness.
Nightmare Alley may be the most inky-black entry in the noir canon. There are no guns, robberies, arrests, or beatings, only the torments of the mind. As Pete says of booze, “The only thing this will help you forget is how to forget.” Memory is the waking nightmare.