Nightmare Alley

[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause.]

Edmund Goulding's Nightmare Alley is a bleak, fatalistic noir, a rich and unusual examination of ambition, hypocrisy and ruin. The film is set in the world of the carnival and show business glitz, as the young carnival barker Stan (Tyrone Power) dreams of developing an act that will get him out of the low-rent carnival; he wants money and fame as a high-class night club attraction, wowing audiences with displays of psychic power and mind-reading. He sees his chance in the washed-up psychic Zeena (Joan Blondell), who had once been a famed night club performer with a flawless code system that had allowed her to stun audiences, until her partner and husband Pete (Ian Keith) was driven by her infidelities to become a drunk, no longer able to maintain the precision necessary for their act. The pair continue performing, in hobbled form, at a low-budget carnival, as Pete is kept barely stable by Zeena, even as she continues to stray. Stan — who openly admits that he thinks only of himself — worms his way in and sees Zeena on the side. Once he learns about the secret code she's guarding, of course he tries to get her to give it up to him, even as he lusts after the much younger Molly (Coleen Gray).

The film is built on a subtle structure of parallels and mirrors, as the film's first half carefully sets up the path of Stan's fated rise and fall. Stan's conversations with the drunken, no good Pete are so pointed that one senses it's only a matter of time before he winds up in the same situation. "How does a man sink so low?" someone asks early on, and the question — which will be repeated as some of the last words in the film — is the hidden driving force behind much of the action. How does a man sink so low? Through greed and cold ambition, through pushing away friends and using people for what he thinks he can get out of them. In the opening scenes of the film, Stan observes a performance by "the Geek," a carnival attraction of the basest sort, a man who degrades himself by pretending to be a subhuman brute, a monster with no thoughts who eats live chickens for the amusement and horror of the audience. Goulding stages this sequence brilliantly: the Geek is positioned at the front of the stage, hidden from view by the crowds gathered around him, and as Stan walks away, disgusted by the spectacle, a man on stage throws a pair of chickens to the brute. As the chickens squawk and squeal, the camera pans away with Stan, towards a fire-eater who blows turrets of flame into the air from his mouth. The audience begins to turn away from the Geek as well, to watch the fire-eater instead, and the moment underscores the insignificance of the degraded, unseen man. He lowers himself to the level of an animal for the momentary entertainment of a fickle crowd, and when they're satisfied with his degradation, they turn to the next spectacle, seeking the next stimulus.

That's why it's so heartbreaking when Pete and Stan discuss the Geek later, watching the man go crazy, pursued by carnival workers. Pete admits that if not for Zeena, that would be him: the Geek is just an ordinary man, a drunk who's sunk so low that he's willing to do anything for a bottle of booze, even if it means utterly debasing himself in the most humiliating and public ways. The Geek pretends to be without thoughts, without a human brain, but Pete's awareness of his own degradation, his own uselessness as a sloppy drunk, suggests that beneath his brutish surface the Geek is very much aware of what he's doing, very much aware of how low he's fallen. That only makes it all the more horrible, and Stan in particular is horrified by the Geek, as though he were seeing a creeping premonition of his own future in this debased man, a former carnival performer himself.

Stan's rise to fame occurs when he gets away from the carnival, at first not of his own free will, though he eventually realizes that he's actually gotten his big break. He brings Molly with him, and one of the film's cleverest scenes is the one where Stan concocts his newest scheme. He's thought of the idea to create a new psychic act with Molly as his partner, and a grin spreads over his face as he thinks of all the money and fame they can earn. But Molly obviously misunderstands, thinking he's happy to be with her, starting a new life with her. "Do you really mean it?" she asks breathlessly, looking at him with wide, happy eyes, and he excitedly exclaims, "yes," but there's some obvious miscommunication here. Molly's happy to be married, to be in love, but Stan is just happy to finally be on the verge of major success. He's happy he's got the girl, but only because he knows he can use her in the act, because she'll be very useful to him. The scene is staged like a conventional romantic climax, a moment of togetherness and union, but the lovers are talking past one another, seeming to say the same things but meaning something very different. The way the different meanings criss-cross in the subtext makes the scene heartrending rather than uplifting, even as the strings soar and Molly proclaims, with sappy earnestness, that she'll be a good and loyal wife to her man. It's as though the film is mocking Molly for being just another mark, just another sucker for Stan's clever patter.

It's fascinating to watch the sweet, innocent Molly hoodwinked by Stan, even as he himself gets tangled up with a calculating psychiatrist, Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who sees one of his acts and gets interested in him. The interplay between Stan and Lilith is a study in power struggles and mutual manipulation, as Stan thinks he's using the psychiatrist for her connections to wealthy society people. But, in a potent scene late in the film, the rug gets pulled out from under Stan, to the point that he begins questioning his own sanity, unsure of what's been real and what's been a con, not knowing if he's losing his mind or being brilliantly played. Goulding, ingeniously, allows the audience to wonder as well. Walker plays this scene with a hint of menace, an undercurrent of knowing manipulation, wrapped up in sincerity and bursts of seemingly genuine confusion. As the psychiatrist winds around her patient in the dark, the shadows making a cruel mask of her face, the audience is left to wonder what's truth and what's lies — to think back on what had already happened and wonder if there had been an elaborate long con running, and if so where the deceit had begun, how far back the web of lies stretched. The uncertainty places the viewer into Stan's position, concocting paranoid conspiracy theories, lost in the dark, feeling used and betrayed.

This is Stan's comeuppance, one explanation for how a man can get so low, how a man becomes the Geek. It is, in some ways, a divine justice, a form of destiny or punishment from above: the film's script is full of allusions to destiny, to the magic of the Tarot deck, and to God and the Christian Bible. There is an increasingly religious fervor to Stan's psychic performances, as he puts his audiences in touch with dead relatives and uses the rhetoric of the church pulpit as fodder for entertainment and spectacle. To him, religion is just another con, and Molly, growing afraid as he crosses the blurry line from entertainer to con artist, begs him not to invoke the wrath of God by playing the role of a spiritualist. But Stan has a literalist's understanding of religion; he believes, or tries to convince Molly that he believes, that because he never explicitly mentions God, then he is free of blasphemy. It's as though he's even trying to con God, to sneak by on a technicality. In the end, though, as Stan semi-consciously falls lower and lower until he's mirroring first Pete and then the lowly Geek, the film suggests that there's no way to con destiny, no way to avoid the inevitable and awful descent into pathetic ruin.