Nightmare Alley
Nightmare Alley

“How do you get a guy to be a geek?” marvels Tyrone Power as a recently hired carnival magician to his thuggish boss in 1947 cult noir Nightmare Alley, screening this week in 35-millimeter as part of the Music Box’s Noir City series. “I mean, is a guy born that way?”

By geek, of course, he means not the likes of Bill Gates but the low man on the carnival totem pole, a pariah performer who thrashes around a pit like a wordless brute and bites the heads off live chickens for the edification of the “marks.” A staple of traveling sideshows from the mid-19th through the early 20th century, the tradition had largely died out by the time the film was released, which may have had something to do with its commercial failure—though most scholars cite weak promotion on the part of 20th Century Fox, whose chief, Darryl Zanuck, hated the project from the start. The film, based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 best-selling book, only got made because the almost absurdly handsome Power, then a box-office titan, was bored with matinee-idol roles and wanted to stretch his stage-honed dramatic chops.

Power couldn’t have picked a better property to tweak his image. We condescend to the 40s and 50s as an era of cultural retreat into bland escapism, but it’s hard to imagine a novel as disturbing as Nightmare Alley finding a broad middle-class readership in the Age of Oprah. Unlike the marginalized “paperback originals” of noir paragon Jim Thompson, Gresham’s book was published in hardback by a mainstream press (Rinehart), received strong reviews, and stayed on the national best-seller list for a year. Republished this spring by the New York Review of Books, with an introduction by Nick Tosches, it’s still a spellbinding bummer, capable of eating toasted little Cormac McCarthy novels for breakfast.

In broad outline, the film is faithful to its source. Power stars as conjurer Stan Carlisle, who, when not performing or pondering the geek, makes time with fellow performer Zeena (Joan Blondell), an older, married mentalist who once trod the boards of big-time vaudeville with her husband, Pete (Ian Keith), now a hopeless drunk. To get Pete out of the way one evening, Stan provides him with a stolen bottle of the booze that Zeena is desperately trying to keep away from him. The plan works too well: the purloined liquor turns out to be wood alcohol, and Pete dies.

Capitalizing on the situation, Stan replaces Pete as Zeena’s assistant and coaxes her into teaching him the verbal code that underwrote her and Pete’s vaudeville mind-reading act. He then takes up with the gorgeous young Molly (a stunningly nubile Coleen Gray), whose act consists of cheating death while perched semi-clad in a bogus electric chair. Stan and Molly leave the carnival and go into the “spook racket,” misrepresenting their staged mind-reading feats as the fruits of real psychic powers. Stan’s master plan is to insinuate himself into high society and use mediumistic trickery to mulct wealthy suckers of some real money. His ambitions are raised yet another notch when he falls in with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), an upscale shrink willing to betray her patients’ darkest secrets to Stan for a piece of the action.

His scheming undone (spoiler alert) by Lilith’s treachery and his own corroding conscience, Stan must go on the lam. Succumbing to low-bottom alcoholism in the company of hobos, he tries to arrest his downward skid by applying to another carnival as a palm reader. Looking into Stan’s ruined face and smelling him too, the carny boss first gives him the bum’s rush, then slyly reconsiders. Standing him to several shots of whiskey, he casually makes his pitch: “Wait—I just happened to think of something. I might have a job you can take a crack at. Of course it isn’t much, and I ain’t begging you to take it, but it’s a job. Keep you in coffee and cakes, a bottle every day, a place to sleep it off in. Anyway, it’s only temporary—just until we get a real geek.”

The novel ends there, full stop. The movie continues for a more few scenes that tack on an imaginable salvation for Stan via the concerned reappearance of Molly.

The last-moment upturn is really too cursory to even count—it practically comes with perforations instructing the viewer where to detach it from what precedes. But it does speak to the fact that no filmmaker—let alone romantic melodrama specialist Edmund Goulding—could have conveyed the full unholy force of Gresham’s novel while constrained by the Hollywood production codes then prevailing.

Don’t misunderstand: It’s an excellent film, well worth seeing on the big screen just for the luscious, brooding cinematography by Lee Garmes (Gone With the Wind). Released two years after Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, it also qualifies as Hollywood’s second good-faith effort to address alcoholism as something other than comic relief. But Gresham was a deeply unhappy son of a bitch whose life was one long search for redemptive meaning, and the internal horror that drove his quest screams off every page. An ardent communist in the 30s and 40s, he volunteered as a medical orderly in the Spanish Civil War. After a suicide attempt, he went into Freudian psychoanalysis, but found there no relief from his rampant and sometimes violent alcoholism. He subsequently sought relief in the Anglican mysticism of C.S. Lewis (his wife and fellow convert, poet Joy Davidman, later divorced him and married Lewis), various occult traditions, Zen Buddhism, Alcoholics Anonymous, and L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. Never able to duplicate the success of Nightmare Alley and diagnosed with cancer of the tongue, he committed suicide in 1962.

Ultimately the shortcomings of the film vis-a-vis the book relate to the length and depth of the shadow cast by the geek. In the film, he’s a bit of Grand Guignol, adding atmosphere to a picaresque but unrelated crime tale, but for Gresham’s amoral and deteriorating protagonist, he becomes the key to understanding “all human nature.” Studying Pete’s notes on the mentalist’s craft, Stan imbibes the lesson that fear is the dominant emotion, and addiction the prevailing response: “The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of getting sober and getting the horrors. But what made him a drunk? Fear. . . . The geek has his whiskey. The rest of them drink something else: they drink promises. They drink hope. And I’ve got it to hand them.”

Proud of his ability to manipulate the inner geeks of others, the Stan of the novel but not the film is stunned to find himself overmatched by Lilith, whose psychiatric practice is “her own special brand of magic,” every bit as predatory as his, except legally perpetrated in a posh office “where she told people what they had to do during the next day when they wanted a drink, . . . when they wanted to kill themselves with sleeping tablets, when they wanted to bugger the parlor maid or whatever they wanted to do that they had become so afraid of doing that they would pay her twenty-five dollars an hour to tell them either why it was all right to do it or go on doing it or stop wanting it to do it or stop thinking about doing it or do something else that was almost as good or something which was bad but would make you feel better or just something to be able to do something.”

“You’ve got enough stuff in that bastard tin file cabinet to blow ’em all up,” Stan tells Lilith. “I know what you’ve got in there—society dames with the clap, bankers that take it up the ass, actresses that live on hop, people with idiot kids. . . . If I had that stuff I’d give ’em cold readings that would have ’em crawling on their knees to me.” So it comes to pass, but soon Stan himself is on his knees before Lilith, ensnared by her sexual allure, superior psychological insight, and prescription pad. Anticipating the work of William S. Burroughs, Gresham defines even love as an addictive illness: hopelessly hooked on Lilith, Stan feels himself dosed “with grains of wild joy, measured out in milligrams,” depending on her moods.

In its feeblest aspect, the film also bowdlerizes the book as a despairing critique of organized religion. In the novel, Stan’s spook racket is an established church, and he’s a credentialed clergyman who blends the Gospels with spiritualist mumbo-jumbo while clad in a ministerial dog collar. But the screenplay by Jules Furthman (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo) takes explicit pains to erect a firewall between faith and fakery with a contrived exchange between Stan and Molly.

I’m not usually disposed to calling for remakes of my favorite old films, and yes, practically any film derived from a book is subject to some charge of shortfall (except maybe The Godfather, based on Mario Puzo’s indefensible 1969 potboiler). But it’s interesting to imagine what the right filmmaker (Michael Winterbottom? Paul Thomas Anderson?) could make of Nightmare Alley now that the Hays Code is a distant memory. It would probably flop, but I’d be first in line to step right up.