This monthly theme idea just keeps producing better and better results, I couldn’t be happier with the way Noirvember has unfolded so far. The latest in a series of surprisingly terrific films is Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley, a noir much different from what we’ve taken a look at this month. Goulding is probably best known for directing Bette Davis in 1939’s excellent Dark Victory and the so-so Best Picture winner Grand Hotel in 1932. Nightmare Alley came towards the end of Goulding’s directing career, and has proven to be one of his most acclaimed and memorable films in the years since his death. The film stars swashbuckling Hollywood heartthrob Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle, the charming noir regular Coleen Gray as Molly Carlisle, and the terrific and prolific Joan Blondell as Zeena. Reviews of the time were initially mixed, but Nightmare Alley has slowly but surely earned the reputation as one of the best film noirs of its time, and an incredibly dark and morally ambiguous one at that. Due to this moral ambiguity Nightmare Alley wasn’t exactly a success after its release, and probably ended up costing 20th Century Fox more money than it worth to the studio. The film has a notable cast, an Academy Award winning director, and a big budget, so why was it considered a failure for so many years?
Nightmare Alley follows Stan Carlisle (the aforementioned Tyrone Power) as a seedy carnival con man trying to claw his way to the top of his travelling circus. Our main character soon finds himself wrapped up in a love affair with his new boss Zeena (Joan Blondell), but his intentions are far from innocent. Zeena reveals to Stan that she and her husband were once a major act in the travelling carnival world. She tells him the two developed a code that would allow the couple to communicate, yet remain undetected by the audience. Zeena would feign mental powers, and her husband Pete (Ian Keith) would ask her questions written by the audience. Upon hearing of this famous “code” Stan begs Zeena to go into business with him, and after an accident involving her husband she decides to go ahead with the plan. Unfortunately for Zeena, Stan likes ‘em young. He soon sets his sights on the talented Molly (Coleen Gray). Molly is a beautiful young act who falls head over heels for our main character before she even knows it. Stan soon begins yet another affair with young Molly, and are both forced to leave when the two are found out by the other members of the carnival. With knowledge of the famed code Carlisle and his new lady now have the world in the palm of their hands. Will the two prosper with their newfound fame and talents, or will Stan’s seediness and criminal history catch up to him? Find out by watching Edmund Goulding’s excellent Nightmare Alley; I promise you it’s absolutely worth your time.
I wasn’t initially sure what to think when Nightmare Alley began unravelling, but the film slowly ramps up tension and builds the world and characters involved in it. The film starts to truly shine once these elements of the film are established, and I can absolutely say that I adored it because of them. All of our main characters are incredibly fun to watch because of how morally confused many of them are, and because of how real they feel for the time. Tyrone Power’s turn as Stan Carlisle is absolutely one of my favorite film noir performances to date, and the supporting cast of incredibly talented actresses like Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, and Helen Walker only helps to solidify the film’s greatness. The carnival setting is truly unique in the film noir world, and is a place where Hollywood rarely dared to venture at the time. The carnival acts and personalities are all believable, and much of the goings on inside make the film feel seedy and dark as it should. Nightmare Alley doesn’t adhere to typical film noir conventions and easy storytelling elements, but instead opts to blaze its own thrilling and dramatic trail. I found myself wishing that more films in the genre were this unique and easy to follow, and hope that I come across more on my month-long journey through noir.
The acting, setting, storytelling, and direction make Nightmare Alley an absolute treat from start to finish, and has me guessing character motivations as well as constantly changing favorites. It’s a noir the likes of which I’ve rarely seen before, and I highly recommend everybody check it out. I don’t want to reveal too much about the twists and turns taken throughout, and I really hope you all decide to seek it out because of that. It’s dark, challenging, and still feels relevant nearly seventy years later. Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley gets my highest recommendation.