Saturday, November 12, 2011

Nightmare Alley

A real Hollywood oddity, and an atypical highpoint in the otherwise classy filmography of Edmund Goulding, this is a cracking carnival noir charting the rise and fall of hubristic mentalist Stanton Carlisle – Stanton the Great – from cheap clairvoyant-act barker to nightclub attraction, to quasi-religious swarmi, to.. well, that’d be spoiling it, but by the look on Tyrone Power’s face, he knew it had to be.

Power plays Stanton with bursting, shining-eyed ambition, buff in his white carny tee and dapper as anything in evening dress or robe and cravat. He cozies up to milfy Joan Blondell to learn the code trick of her old act, but is forced to get hitched to gorgeous, scantily-clad Coleen Gray in a scene unusual for its turning on an understated, unspoken flash of understanding between the main characters.

Once Stan hits the big time, amusing the tony Chicago supper-club crowd, he attracts the attention of feline Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), psychologist to the wealthy, through whom he sees his way into the big-money spook business. Walker is a superb flinty peach of broiling sexuality, and the looks they exchange are priceless, disdain mixed with desire mixed with the promise of selfish gain. Truth be told, Stan’s transition to private medium is rather skimped, and the late revelation that he’s been careful to be god-fearing rings hollow. But his derision of Blondell’s tarot deck is never quite convincing – he’s prepared to hedge his bets in the hope of getting off on a technicality, it seems.

It's riveting, but all trash, of course, like Stan in his dinner jacket, dressed to the nines with a heady score by Cyril Mockridge and the fantastic, shadow-laden photography of Sternberg collaborator Lee Garmes, from night-shrouded carnival wagons to the magical grotto where Stan’s plans come crashing down. It is a murky netherworld where the mysteries of the tarot can believably come true, and the transition happens smoothly and naturally that Power and Moore slip into the roles of Blondell and her rummy partner. Stan’s shadowy moral sleights of hand will push him too far, but he is as enamoured of his own silver-tongued facility as the suckers are of his spiel. Over the hump, Power kills it as the down and out, the fire not quite gone from his eyes, but now so cushioned by foul bags and wrinkles that we cannot help but feel a little sorry, even though we know he’s where he deserves to be. The tragedy is that he knows it too.

d Edmund Goulding p George Jessel sc Jules Furthman ph Lee Garmes ed Barbara McLean ad J. Russel Spencer, Lyle R. Wheeler m Cyril J. Mockridge cast Tyrone Power, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Joan Blondell, Mike Mazurki, Ian Kieth, Taylor Holmes
(1947, USA, 110m, b/w)


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