Nightmare Alley (1947 film)
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''Nightmare Alley'' is a 1947 American
film noir Film noir (; ) is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood Hollywood is a neighborhood A neighbourhood (British English British English (BrE) is the standard dialect of the English language Englis ...
directed by
Edmund Goulding Edmund Goulding (20 March 1891 – 24 December 1959) was a British screenwriter A screenplay writer (also called screenwriter for short), scriptwriter or scenarist, is a writer who practices the craft of screenwriting, writing screenplays o ...
from a screenplay by
Jules Furthman Jules Furthman (March 5, 1888 – September 22, 1966) was an American magazine and newspaper writer before working as a screenwriter. Biography Furthman was born in Chicago (''City in a Garden''); I Will , image_map ...
. Based on
William Lindsay Gresham William Lindsay Gresham (; August 20, 1909 – September 14, 1962) was an American novelist A novelist is an author or writer of novels, though often novelists also write in other genres of both fiction and non-fiction. Some novelists are profess ...
's 1946 novel of the same name, it stars
Tyrone Power Tyrone Edmund Power III (May 5, 1914 – November 15, 1958) was an American actor. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Power appeared in dozens of films, often in swashbuckler A swashbuckler is a genre of European adventure literature that focuses ...
, with
Joan Blondell Rose Joan Blondell (née Bluestein; August 30, 1906 – December 25, 1979) was an American actress who performed in film and television for half a century. Blondell began her career in vaudeville Vaudeville (; ) is a of born in France a ...
,
Coleen Gray Coleen Gray (born Doris Bernice Jensen; October 23, 1922 – August 3, 2015) was an American actress. She was best known for her roles in the films ''Nightmare Alley (1947 film), Nightmare Alley'' (1947), ''Red River (1948 film), Red River' ...
, and
Helen Walker Helen Walker (July 17, 1920 – March 10, 1968) was an American film actress of the 1940s and 1950s.Obituary '' Variety'', March 13, 1968, page 79. Early years Walker was born in Worcester, Massachusetts Worcester ( ) is a city in, and co ...
in supporting roles. Power, wishing to expand beyond the romantic and
swashbuckler A swashbuckler is a genre Genre () is any form or type of communication in any mode (written, spoken, digital, artistic, etc.) with socially-agreed-upon conventions developed over time. In popular usage, it normally describes a Category of b ...
roles that brought him to fame, requested
20th Century Fox 20th Century Studios, Inc. (also known as 20th Century for short, and nicknamed 20th Pictures, formerly Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation) is an American film studio A film studio (also known as movie studio or simply studio) is a maj ...
's studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck to buy the rights to the novel so he could star as the unsavory leadMuller, Eddie (May 5, 2019). Intro to the
Turner Classic Movie Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is an American movie-oriented pay-TV Pay television also known as subscription television, premium television or, when referring to an individual service, a premium channel, refers to subscription The subscription ...
presentation of the film.
"The Great Stanton", a scheming carnival barker. The film premiered in the United States on October 9, 1947, then went into wide release on October 28, 1947, later having six more European releases between November 1947 to May 1954. As noted on the DVD commentary track by
Alain Silver Alain Silver is a US film producer, director, and screenwriter; music producer; film critic, film historian Although the advent of film as an artistic medium is not clearly defined, the commercial, public screening of ten of Auguste and Loui ...
and
James Ursini James Ursini (born May 10, 1947) is an American writer living in Los Angeles, and an educator. He received his master's degree in Theater Arts Theatre or theater is a collaborative form of performing art that uses live performers, usually ...
, ''Nightmare Alley'' was somewhat unusual among film noir in having top stars, production staff and a relatively large budget. The film was not a financial success upon its original release but has since found acclaim and is regarded as a classic.


Plot

The movie follows the rise and fall of a con man—a story that begins and ends at a seedy
traveling carnival A traveling carnival (US English), usually simply called a carnival, or travelling funfair (UK English), is an amusement show that may be made up of amusement rides, food vendors, merchandise vendors, games of chance and skill, thrill acts, an ...
. The carnival's barker, Stanton "Stan" Carlisle, is fascinated by everything there, including a grotesque
geek The word ''geek'' is a slang Slang is vocabulary A vocabulary, also known as a wordstock or word-stock, is a set of familiar words within a person's language. A vocabulary, usually developed with age, serves as a useful and fundamental ...
, who prompts an observation from Stanton that he "can't understand how anybody could get so low." Stanton works with "Mademoiselle Zeena" and her alcoholic husband, Pete. Once a top-billed
vaudeville Vaudeville (; ) is a of born in France at the end of the 19th century. A vaudeville was originally a comedy without psychological or moral intentions, based on a comical situation: a dramatic composition or light poetry, mixed with songs or b ...
act, Zeena and Pete used an ingenious code to make it appear that she had extraordinary mental powers, until her attentions to other men drove Pete to drink and reduced them to working in carnivals. Stanton learns that many people want to buy the code from Zeena for a lot of money but she refuses to sell; she is saving it as a nest egg. Stanton tries to romance Zeena into teaching it to him but she remains faithful to Pete, feeling guilty over the role she played in his downfall and effectively nursemaiding him in the hope of some day sending him to a detox clinic for alcoholics. But one night in Texas, Stanton accidentally gives Pete the wrong bottle: the old man dies from drinking
wood alcohol Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol, amongst other names, is a Chemical compound, chemical and the simplest alcohol, with the Chemical formula, formula Carbon, CHydrogen, H3Oxygen, OHydrogen, H (a methyl group linked to a Hydroxy group, hydr ...
instead of
moonshine Moonshine is high-proof liquor Liquor or spirit (also hard liquor, or distilled alcohol) is an alcoholic drink An alcoholic drink is a drink A drink (or beverage) is a liquid A liquid is a nearly incompressible fluid ...

moonshine
. To keep her act going, Zeena is forced to teach Stanton the mind-reading code so that he can serve as her assistant. Stanton prefers the company of the younger Molly. When their romance is found out, the remainder of the
carnies Circus_films Carny, also spelled carnie, is an informal term used in North America for a traveling carnival employee, and the cant (language), language they use, particularly when the employee operates a game ("joint"), food stand ("grab" or "pop ...
including strongman Bruno force the pair into a
shotgun marriage A shotgun wedding is a wedding A wedding is a ceremony A ceremony (, ) is a unified ritual A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gesture A gesture is a form of non-verbal communication or non-vocal communication ...
. No longer welcome in the carnival, Stanton realizes this is actually a golden opportunity for him. He and his wife leave the carnival. He becomes "The Great Stanton," performing to enraptured audiences in expensive nightclubs in Chicago. As well as things seem to be going, however, Stanton remains emotionally troubled by Pete's death and by his own part in it. He eventually seeks counseling from psychologist Lilith Ritter, to whom he confesses all that has occurred. Since Ritter makes a point of recording all of her sessions with her patients, she has accumulated sensitive information about various members of Chicago's social elite. Recognizing themselves as kindred spirits to a degree, she and Stanton conspire together to manipulate her patients, with Ritter secretly providing private information about them and Stanton using that information to convince them that he can communicate with the dead. The plan almost works, until Stanton tries to swindle skeptical Ezra Grindle by having Molly pose as the ghost of Grindle's long-lost love. When the heartbroken Grindle breaks down, Molly refuses to play out the charade and reveals her true self to Grindle, thereby exposing Stanton as a fake. As he prepares to flee, Stanton discovers he has been scammed by Ritter, who gives him only $150 of Grindle's money rather than the promised $150,000 they had conned him out of to that point. With her recordings of Stanton's confessions to her available for use against him, Ritter threatens to testify that he is mentally disturbed should he accuse her of complicity in his crimes. Defeated, Stanton gives the $150 to Molly and urges her return to the carnival world where people care for her. Meanwhile, he gradually sinks into alcoholism. With nowhere else to go, Stanton tries to get a job at another carnival, only to suffer the ultimate degradation: the only job he can get is playing the
geek The word ''geek'' is a slang Slang is vocabulary A vocabulary, also known as a wordstock or word-stock, is a set of familiar words within a person's language. A vocabulary, usually developed with age, serves as a useful and fundamental ...
, eating live chickens in a
sideshow In North America, a sideshow is an extra, secondary production associated with a circus A circus is a company of performers who put on diverse entertainment shows that may include clown A clown is a person who wears a unique makeup ...
and replying to the offer with his recurring catchphrase, "Mister, I was made for it." Unable to stand his life any further, he goes berserk. However, Molly happens to work in the same carnival. She manages to calm him down and give him hope, bringing things full circle between Stanton and Molly, to Pete and Zeena's doomed relationship.


Cast

*
Tyrone Power Tyrone Edmund Power III (May 5, 1914 – November 15, 1958) was an American actor. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Power appeared in dozens of films, often in swashbuckler A swashbuckler is a genre of European adventure literature that focuses ...
as Stanton "Stan" Carlisle *
Joan Blondell Rose Joan Blondell (née Bluestein; August 30, 1906 – December 25, 1979) was an American actress who performed in film and television for half a century. Blondell began her career in vaudeville Vaudeville (; ) is a of born in France a ...
as Zeena Krumbein *
Coleen Gray Coleen Gray (born Doris Bernice Jensen; October 23, 1922 – August 3, 2015) was an American actress. She was best known for her roles in the films ''Nightmare Alley (1947 film), Nightmare Alley'' (1947), ''Red River (1948 film), Red River' ...
as Molly Carlisle *
Helen Walker Helen Walker (July 17, 1920 – March 10, 1968) was an American film actress of the 1940s and 1950s.Obituary '' Variety'', March 13, 1968, page 79. Early years Walker was born in Worcester, Massachusetts Worcester ( ) is a city in, and co ...
as Lilith Ritter *
Taylor Holmes Taylor Holmes (May 16, 1878 – September 30, 1959) was an American actor who appeared in over 100 Broadway theatre, Broadway plays in his five-decade career. However, he is probably best remembered for his screen performances, which he began ...
as Ezra Grindle *
Mike Mazurki Mike Mazurki (December 25, 1907 – December 9, 1990) was a Ukrainian-American actor and professional wrestling, professional wrestler who appeared in more than 142 films. His 6 ft 5 in (196 cm) presence and face had him typecast as ...

Mike Mazurki
as Bruno *
Ian Keith Ian Keith (born Keith Ross; February 27, 1899 – March 26, 1960) was an American actor. Early years Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Keith grew up in Chicago. He was educated at the Francis Parker School there and played Hamlet in a school pr ...
as Pete Krumbein


Production

Tyrone Power, wishing to expand beyond the romantic and
swashbuckler A swashbuckler is a genre Genre () is any form or type of communication in any mode (written, spoken, digital, artistic, etc.) with socially-agreed-upon conventions developed over time. In popular usage, it normally describes a Category of b ...
roles that brought him to fame, requested
20th Century Fox 20th Century Studios, Inc. (also known as 20th Century for short, and nicknamed 20th Pictures, formerly Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation) is an American film studio A film studio (also known as movie studio or simply studio) is a maj ...
's studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck to buy the rights to the novel so he could star in it. Fox paid $50,000 in September 1946 for the rights to Gresham's novel, and Gresham was hired as consultant to help screenwriter
Jules Furthman Jules Furthman (March 5, 1888 – September 22, 1966) was an American magazine and newspaper writer before working as a screenwriter. Biography Furthman was born in Chicago (''City in a Garden''); I Will , image_map ...
, although the extent of his contribution to the script is not clear. In November 1946, it was reported that Mark Stevens and
Anne Baxter Anne Baxter (May 7, 1923 – December 12, 1985) was an American actress, star of Hollywood films, Broadway Broadway may refer to: Theatre * Broadway Theatre (disambiguation) * Broadway theatre, theatrical productions in professional theatre ...
were to star in the film, and that
William Keighley William Jackson Keighley (August 4, 1889 – June 24, 1984) was an American stage actor and Hollywood Hollywood is a neighborhood A neighbourhood (British English British English (BrE) is the standard dialect of the English l ...
would be the director. By January 1947,
Lloyd Bacon Lloyd Francis Bacon (December 4, 1889 – November 15, 1955) was an American screen, stage and vaudeville actor and film director. As a director he made films in virtually all genres, including westerns, musicals, comedies, gangster films, an ...
was the reported director. To make the film more believable, the producers built a full working carnival on ten acres (40,000 m2) of the 20th Century Fox back lot. They also hired over 100
sideshow In North America, a sideshow is an extra, secondary production associated with a circus A circus is a company of performers who put on diverse entertainment shows that may include clown A clown is a person who wears a unique makeup ...
attractions and carnival people to add further authenticity. Filming also took place at the
San Diego County Fair The San Diego County Fair (formerly called the Del Mar Fair) is a county fair held every summer at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in Del Mar, California. The fair is a major draw for San Diego County, California, San Diego County residents; in recent yea ...
in
Del Mar, California Del Mar (Spanish language, Spanish for "Of the Sea") is a beach town in San Diego County, California, located on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Established in 1885 as a seaside resort, the city incorporated in 1959. The Del Mar Horse Races are ...

Del Mar, California
. The slightly upbeat but somewhat dark and ambiguous ending of the film was added by screenwriter Furthman at Zanuck's direction, softening the harsh ending of Gresham's novel for commercial purposes.Muller, Eddie (May 5, 2019) Outro to the
Turner Classic Movie Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is an American movie-oriented pay-TV Pay television also known as subscription television, premium television or, when referring to an individual service, a premium channel, refers to subscription The subscription ...
presentation of the film
The novel's ending implies that Stanton is doomed to work as a geek until he drinks himself to death. Author
William Lindsay Gresham William Lindsay Gresham (; August 20, 1909 – September 14, 1962) was an American novelist A novelist is an author or writer of novels, though often novelists also write in other genres of both fiction and non-fiction. Some novelists are profess ...
died by suicide by sleeping pills on September 14, 1962, in the same room in the Hotel Carter where he wrote the first draft of ''Nightmare Alley''.


Reception

On the film's original release, reviews were mixed, and the film was a box-office flop. ''
The New York Times ''The New York Times'' is an American daily newspaper based in New York City with a worldwide readership. Founded in 1851, the ''Times'' has since won List of Pulitzer Prizes awarded to The New York Times, 132 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of a ...

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 Variety may refer to: Science and technology Mathematics * Algebraic variety, the set of solutions of a system of polynomial equations * Variety (universal algebra), classes of algebraic structures defined by equations in universal algebra Hor ...
'' review complimented the film's acting, noting that:
''Nightmare Alley'' is a harsh, brutal story 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 ''
Time Time is the continued sequence of existence and event (philosophy), events that occurs in an apparently irreversible process, irreversible succession from the past, through the present, into the future. It is a component quantity of various me ...
'' magazine (November 24, 1947), film critic James Agee wrote:
"Nightmare Alley" would be unbearably brutal for general audiences if it were played for all the humour, cynicism and malign social observation that are implicit in it. It would be unbearably mawkish if it were played too solemnly. Scripter Jules Furthman and Director Edmund Goulding have steered a middle course, now and then crudely but on the whole with tact, skill and power. They have seldom forgotten that the original novel they were adapting is essentially intelligent trash, and they have never forgotten that on the screen pretty exciting things can be made of trash. From top to bottom of the cast, the playing is good. Joan Blondell, as the fading carnival queen, is excellent and Tyrone Power – who asked to be cast in the picture – steps into a new class as an actor (Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies, Modern Library, New York, 2000, page 369).
In a 2000 review of the film in ''
The Village Voice ''The Village Voice'' is an American news and culture paper, known for being the country's first alternative newspaper, alternative newsweekly. Founded in 1955 by Dan Wolf (publisher), Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher, John Wilcock, and Norman Mailer, th ...

The Village Voice
'', writer 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 "one of the gems of
film noir Film noir (; ) is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood Hollywood is a neighborhood A neighbourhood (British English British English (BrE) is the standard dialect of the English language Englis ...
" and as one of Power's finest performances.
Review aggregator A review aggregator is a system that collects reviews of products and services (such as films, books, video games, software, hardware, and cars). This system stores the reviews and uses them for purposes such as supporting a website A websi ...
Rotten Tomatoes Rotten Tomatoes is an American review-aggregation website for film and television. The company was launched in August 1998 by three undergraduate students at the University of California, Berkeley The University of California, Berkeley ...

Rotten Tomatoes
retrospectively collected 59 reviews and gave the film an 86% approval rating, with an average rating of 7.7/10. The consensus summarizes: "Playing against type with ''Nightmare Alley'', Tyrone Power and Edmund Goulding deliver some of their best work in a carnival-set noir unafraid to showcase true despair."


2021 adaptation

On December 12, 2017,
Fox Searchlight Pictures Searchlight Pictures, Inc. (or simply Searchlight) is an American film studio A film studio (also known as movie studio or simply studio) is a major entertainment company or motion picture company that has its own privately owned studio A stu ...
announced that
Guillermo del Toro Guillermo del Toro Gómez (; born October 9, 1964) is a Mexican film director, producer, screenwriter, and author. He is best known for his Academy Awards, Academy Award-winning fantasy films ''Pan's Labyrinth'' (2006) and ''The Shape of Water' ...
would be directing a new adaptation of the novel, co-writing the screenplay with Kim Morgan. In April 2019,
Leonardo DiCaprio Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio (; ; born November 11, 1974) is an American actor and film producer. Known for his work in biopics and period films, DiCaprio has received List of awards and nominations received by Leonardo DiCaprio, numerous accolad ...

Leonardo DiCaprio
was negotiating to star in del Toro's film. In August 2019, it was reported that
Cate Blanchett Catherine Elise Blanchett (; born 14 May 1969) is an Australian actor. Regarded as one of the best actresses of her generation, Blanchett is known for her work in independent films, Blockbuster (entertainment), blockbusters, and the stage. She ...

Cate Blanchett
was negotiating to co-star with Bradley Cooper in the film. On September 4, 2019, Rooney Mara was cast in the film. Filming commenced in January 2020 and production wrapped until December 2020. The film was released on December 17, 2021.


References


External links

* * * * *
''Nightmare Alley: The Fool Who Walks in Motley . . .''
an essay by Kim Morgan at the Criterion Collection {{Edmund Goulding 1947 films 1947 crime drama films 1940s English-language films 20th Century Fox films American films American black-and-white films American crime drama films Circus films Film noir Films about magic and magicians Films about sideshow performers Films based on American novels Films directed by Edmund Goulding Films scored by Cyril J. Mockridge Films set in Chicago Films with screenplays by Jules Furthman