Nightmare Alley Review

For an alternate look at this film, please read Gary Couzen's review of its Region 1 release.

Edmund Goulding is primarily known as a director of glossy Hollywood melodramas. He’s had his hand in a couple of genuine classics (Grand Hotel, Dark Victory), the underrated (We Are Not Alone) and the decidedly so-so (The Great Lie). With 1946’s The Razor’s Edge, however, he unerring went down the road towards sentimentality and so it’s hardly surprising that his follow up would offer a change of tact. Indeed, that film’s star, Tyrone Power, came up with the project of Nightmare Alley, a carnival-set film noir based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, as a means of prompting his own reaction to a Hollywood past made up of romantic leads and dashing heroes (most notably Zorro and Jesse James). Of course, he would go on to collaborate with the likes of John Ford, Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, but these resulted in often minor works (The Long Gray Line, American Guerrilla in the Philippines) meaning that this 1947 venture remains the strangest, most intriguing item to bless his filmography.

Certainly, Nightmare Alley is odd even for film noir. It’s undoubtedly part of the genre, but at the same time not quite; try twinning it with Touch of Evil, say, and it doesn’t quite fit, likewise Double Indemnity, Desperate or Kiss Me Deadly, a trio which collectively encompass much of what noir has to offer. Rather the narrative’s carnival qualities, its population of old-timers, cynics and alcoholics, means that the drama can’t be pinned down quite so easily. Much like Tod Browning’s Freaks or even Robert Kaylor’s Carny, it’s perhaps best labelled as “something else”.

Yet the noir roots are certainly discernible. They’re there in Lee Garnes’ stylised photography and the initial plot manoeuvres which see Power’s womanising showman wind up in a ménage a trois of sorts with Joan Blondell’s older woman (a sham mentalist who’s nonetheless superstitious) and her alcoholic husband. Indeed, there’s more than a flavour of James M. Cain to the relationship, not least because of the pathetic undertow of these characters. Ex-vaudeville and exploiting themselves, they seemingly occupy their own sad little world. Hardly surprising given the transitory nature of the carnival lifestyle, one that never stays put for too long.

As such it shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that Nightmare Alley comes with its own shifts. Power’s character turns out to be an aspirational young man and so his career is on the up, moving from the lower echelons of the carny circuit to the classier realms of high society nightspots and monied patrons eager to be taken in by his mentalist hustle. Yet whilst Power handles the transition with actorly grace, the film itself struggles to keep up. Nightmare Alley may fit in perfectly with the carnival setting, but has clear difficulties once it reaches newer environs.

The major problem is that it feels as though it’s in continual danger of slipping into standard Goulding melodramatic territory. The characters who cross Power’s path may be morally dubious, as indeed he is himself, yet there’s a gloss which prevents the film from becoming too tough. You constantly get the impression the aegis of 20th Century Fox is preventing it from going too far; had it been made under less auspicious circumstances, as with Detour or The Big Combo, then perhaps it would have retained a more pointed edge. Moreover, the psychoanalytical dimension which comes into play during the second half is never leapt on with the same relish that someone such as Ben Hecht (Spellbound, Whirlpool) would have allowed for. Certainly, there are both religious overtones and a redemptive narrative arc to keep the drama playful enough – and fascinating the 21st century eyes – but you continually wonder what might have been had a director more in line with Gresham – an Anthony Mann, say, or a Samuel Fuller – had been given the helm in place of Goulding.

What we have in Nightmare Alley then is an oddball work which fascinates even as it can’t fully satisfy. The “masters of cinema” tag might be a bit too much in this case, but, as the title suggests, it takes us down an intriguing cinematic alleyway, one which we may wish to visit more than once.

The Disc

Presentation wise, Masters of Cinema’s handling of Nightmare Alley matches its Region 1 ‘Fox Studio Classics’ counterpart right down to the NTSC format. As such we get the film in its original Academy ratio, with superb contrast and clarity levels, and with barely any damage (you may see the odd speck of dirt but these are utterly negligible). That said, we’re not dealing with utter perfection here – there is some slight haloing to be found and the graininess of the image is at times highly prevalent – but then nothing particularly untoward. Indeed, for a film which currently enjoys only a cult status, the visual presentation is often very good. As for the soundtrack, here we find the original mono rendered as two-channel Dolby Digital and in truly excellent condition. Sound levels remain constant throughout and there is absolutely no damage to speak of. Note, however, that this disc misses out the stereo option which appeared on the Region 1 offering. Though as Gary Couzens noted in his review of that release, its inclusion was decidedly unnecessary and the weaker of the two.

In terms of the extras content, the major inclusion is the audio commentary by prolific noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. Chatty and enthusiastic, what makes this track so interesting is the fact that they concentrate more on discussing the film’s ambiguities than they do the background. As such it immediately makes you want to check out the film and take into account their considerations. Admittedly, I care less for Nightmare Alley than they do, but it’s hard not to be taken in by their passion.

Add the original theatrical trailer and we have everything which appeared on the ‘Fox Studio Classics’ version. However, Masters of Cinema have gone one step further and roped in Woody Haut, author of noir study Pulp Culture, to contribute a trio of additional pieces. As such we also get a nine-minute introduction, a 25-minute featurette-cum-interview, and a 24-page booklet to which he’s contributed a lengthy essay. Understandably, there’s often some crossover between these three pieces, yet much of what Haut has to say is of value. We learn the background of Gresham, Goulding and film noir as a whole, plus he offers his own analysis which doesn’t always fit with the angles taken by Silver and Ursini. As to whether it’s enough to encourage owners of the Region 1 to double dip is another matter, though first time buyers will no doubt welcome these additions. Meanwhile those with DVD-ROM capabilities will also be able to download the musical cue sheet, plus the dialogue and continuity script.

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