Nightmare Alley (1947): Goulding’s Grim, Existential Noir, Starring Typrone Power in Uncharacteristic Role

Edmund Goulding directed Nightmare Alley, a harsh, brutal noir melodrama, based on the William Lindsay Gresham 1946 novel of the same title, starring matinee idol Tyrone Power in one of his strongest–and atypical–performances.

Grade: B+

Nightmare Alley

Theatrical release poster


Wishing to expand beyond the romantic and swashbuckler roles that brought him fame, Power bought the rights to the novel so that he could star as “The Great Stanton,” a scheming carnival barker.

The film premiered on October 9, 1947, then went into wide release three weeks later.

To increase the level of authenticity, the producers built a full working carnival on ten acres of the Fox back lot, and also hired many sideshow attractions and carnival people.

Nightmare Alley was somewhat unusual film noir in having top stars and relatively large budget. Despite a strong promotion campaign, the film was not a commercial success upon its original release, due in part to protests against the scandalous content.

The narrative unfolds as the rise and fall of a con man, with a symmetrical beginning and ending at a seedy traveling carnival. The carnival’s barker, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Power) says he “can’t understand how anybody could get so low.”

Stanton works with “Mademoiselle Zeena” (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith). Once a top-billed vaudeville 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.

Many people want to buy the code from Zeena but she refuses to sell, saving it as a nest egg.

Stanton tries to romance Zeena into teaching the code to him, but she remains faithful to Pete, feeling guilty over the role she had played in his downfall, now hoping to send him to a detox clinic for alcoholics.

One night, Stanton accidentally gives Pete the wrong bottle, and the old man dies from drinking wood alcohol. In order to keep her act going, Zeena is forced to teach Stanton the mind-reading code as her new assistant.

Meanwhile, Stanton courts the younger Molly (Coleen Gray), and when their romance is found out, strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki) forces the pair into a shotgun marriage.

Stanton realizes the golden opportunity, and he and his wife leave the carnival. He becomes “The Great Stanton,” performing in expensive nightclubs in Chicago. But Stanton remains emotionally troubled by Pete’s death and his role in it.

To that extent, he seeks counseling from the psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), and then confessed to her the truth.

Lilith records all of her sessions with her patients, and she and Stanton conspire to manipulate her patients. Lilith secretly provides information about them and Stanton uses it to convince them he can communicate with the dead.

The plan almost works, until Stanton tries to swindle skeptical Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes) by having Molly pose as the ghost of Grindle’s lost love. When Grindle breaks down, Molly reveals her true self to Grindle, which exposes Stanton as a fake.

Stanton discovers he has been scammed by Ritter, who gives him only $150 of Grindle’s money rather than the promised $150,000. With her recordings of Stanton’s confessions to her available, Lilith threatens to testify that he is mentally disturbed should he accuse her of complicity in crime.

Defeated, and sinking into alcoholism, Stanton gives the $150 to Molly and urges her return to the carnival where people care for her. Stanton tries to get a job at another carnival, only to suffer the ultimate degradation, playing the geek, eating live chickens in a sideshow 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.

Stan regains hope when he sees her again and Molly vows to nurse him back to health, but their reunion is bittersweet, recalling Zeena’s nursing the ever-drunk Pete. This ending differed from the novel, which implied that Stanton is doomed to work as a geek until he drinks himself to death.

Following the arch of rise and fall–of a scoundrel in this case, Nightmare Alley received mixed response upon initial release.  However, a new generation of critics and scholars have reevaluated the film, elevating its stature.

Seen from today’s perspective, the film is ambitious in its existential statements, and daring in depicting a marriage on the rocks.  Power’s last speech to his wife, “I am a hustler, a sacrilegious thief, but I’ve always been on the level, and I love you,” is not only candid, but remarkable in showing Power’s acting kills (underestimated at the time) and his willingness as a major star to play an unsympathetic man, who finally accepts his true identity, even if it signals grim and sordid fate.

The more upbeat and ambiguous ending was added by writer Furthman at Zanuck’s direction, in order to soften the harsh and grim conclusion of Gresham’s novel. The novel’s ending implies that Stanton is doomed to work as a geek until he drinks himself to death.

Author’s Suicide

Author William Lindsay Gresham committed 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.

Tyrone Power as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle
Joan Blondell as Zeena Krumbein
Coleen Gray as Molly Carlisle
Helen Walker as Lilith Ritter
Taylor Holmes as Ezra Grindle
Mike Mazurki as Bruno
Ian Keith as Pete Krumbein


Twentieth Century Fox

Directed by Edmund Goulding
Screenplay by Jules Furthman, based on the book Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
Produced by George Jessel
Starring Tyrone Power
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Edited by Barbara McLean
Music by Cyril J. Mockridge

Release date: October 9, 1947 (New York City)

Running time: 111 minutes

End Note:

I am grateful to TCM for showing the film on May 5, 2019.