Nightmare Alley Review

Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) works in a carnival. Also in the carnival is a mind-reading act called The Great Zeena (Joan Blondell). Seeing an opportunity in front of him, he persuades Zeena to tell him the secrets of the act, then drops her as he moves up in society, taking his act to richer clients. But nemesis is on its way.

Nightmare Alley was Tyrone Power’s project from the beginning. He was a big star at the time, but was beginning to tire of romantic leads and wanted to try something that drew more on his stage-trained acting ability.. Studio head Darryl Zanuck was opposed to this film, based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham, but Power had enough clout to get it made. His director was Edmund Goulding, with whom Power had previously worked with on another ambitious vehicle for his acting talents, The Razor’s Edge. Goulding was a versatile man, being an actor and a songwriter as well as a director.

Nightmare Alley is atypical of film noirs by being made on an A-picture budget: the carnival in which most of the first half of the film takes place, was purpose-built on ten acres of ground. The film flopped, as audiences at the time weren’t prepared to take Power as such an unsympathetic, cold-hearted and opportunistic bastard, such a departure for a handsome leading man, and he followed public demand and returned to the more lightweight films with which he'd made his name.

However, Nightmare Alley has since picked up a cult following, for two reasons. Firstly, apart from television showings, it has been hard to see until recently, due to a now-resolved legal dispute between producer George Jessel and director Edmund Goulding. Secondly, and more importantly, it is one of the darkest and grimmest films to come from a Hollywood major studio before the 1960s or 1970s – on a big budget and with a major star in the lead as well. In terms of content, it pushed the envelope in what was allowed in Hays Code-era Hollywood: alcoholism, pre-marital sex, near-blasphemous discussion of God. Add to that the geek. Gresham did intensive research in carnivals for his novel, which introduced a mainstream reading public to the concept: a man who bites the heads off live chickens. He is seen as the ultimate in human degradation, and early on Stanton asks: “How could a man sink so low?” He’s soon to find out. Throughout his rise, he’s haunted by the recurring screams of the geek. This is a very bleak film, especially so for 1947: in a dark, corrupt world there’s little to separate a man from a geek. Admittedly the film softens the end of the novel to make it more redemptive, but this film goes a long way for its time. (Even more remarkably, in Britain the BBFC left it alone, passing it uncut for an A certificate.) With its use of quasi-supernatural elements (the Tarot figures significantly, and there are hints that Stanton is at least partially psychic) it often approaches the horror genre.

The two cameramen most associated with developing the film noir look were John Alton and Nicholas Musuraca. Lee Garmes had been a top-flight cameraman since silent days, having shot Scarface for Howard Hawks and three films for Joseph Von Sternberg. In more recent years he had done notable work in colour, especially the previous year’s Duel in the Sun, which he had co-photographed. But Garmes was a master in black and white, in films like this and the now quite rarely shown Zoo in Budapest. In this film, he went whole-heartedly for a style which would be identified as noir: single-source lighting, deep shadows often cutting across sets and faces. There’s no respite: even in the office of crooked psychiatrist Lilith (Helen Walker), shadows crisscross the set. The collaboration between the veteran cameraman and director Goulding led to a wonderfully stylish film deserving of its cult reputation.

Due to legal difficulties referred to above, this DVD is Nightmare Alley’s first appearance on a homeviewing format, as part of Fox’s Film Noir range. As you would expect for a film of this vintage, it was shot in Academy Ratio (1.37:1) and is presented on DVD in a full-frame 4:3 transfer. The film is in excellent shape, with strong blacks and every shade of grey. There’s a little grain, but nothing too untoward. The subtitles are in yellow, and the disc is encoded for Region 1 only.

Apart from the commentary, there are two 2.0 soundtracks on this disc, and one of them is a waste of time. Watch the film in the original, and intended mono. This track is a fine example of 40s Hollywood craftsmanship, maybe limited in dynamic range compared to modern tracks, but none the worse for that. The “stereo” track introduces some separation into Cyril Mockridge’s music score, and a noticeable change of ambience. Including this kind of remix seems to be a habit of Fox’s, and it’s a pointless exercise. Mono is the way to go here.

The main extra is a commentary by two film historians, James Ursini and Alain Silver, authors between them of many books on film noir. Between them they give a thorough and generally interesting chat, filling in a lot of details and pointing out recurring motifs in the script and the soundtrack. Also on the disc is the theatrical trailer (2:26), which has a music-only soundtrack at first, and presents a series of scenes from the film – with no title card, strangely enough. It’s much more contrasty than the main feature, which is an indication of how good this disc’s DVD transfer is. The extras are completed by trailers for other titles in Fox’s Film Noir line: The Dark Corner, Laura, Panic in the Streets, House of Bamboo and The Street with No Name.

Nightmare Alley has been a much-requested title on DVD. For many people, unless they have caught an infrequent TV showing, this will be the first opportunity they have to see this film, so it’s good that it gets excellent treatment from Fox for its release on disc.

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