The best of film noir continues with a great movie, Nightmare Alley, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. We have an interesting setting because Nightmare Alley begins and ends at a seedy carnival. Because of its intense plot and character portrayals, Nightmare Alley has been called the grimmest of all the film noir.
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
We have a great noir hero in Nightmare Alley. Tyrone Power plays Stanton Carlisle, a womanizing, utterly ruthless man. Carlisle is a small-time carnival huckster. At the beginning of the movie, we see Carlisle watching a sideshow geek. Then the camera focuses on the carnival barker as he shouts out his banter. It’s so enticing, Carlisle asks how does a guy become a geek? The rest of the movie gives us our answer as we watch Carlisle’s incredible rise as The Great Stanton and his equally disastrous fall. As we discussed in Continuing The Best of Film Noir – Sweet Smell of Success, we have another example of a Hollywood pretty boy playing against type. And Power is, well…powerful.
The Best of Film Noir – The Femme Fatale
As we know, film noir almost always has a femme fatale, that woman who brings about our noir hero’s downfall. Nightmare Alley has a doozy. Helen Walker plays a psychiatrist named Lilith who is scamming her wealthy patients. She uses her wiles on Carlisle, convincing him to work with her on a huge scam. And then as a femme fatale does, she tricks Carlisle. Helen Walker is brilliant. Her Lilith is every bit as ruthless and cold-blooded as Power’s Carlisle. But she edges him out on the wicked scale, causing his downfall.
The Best of Film Noir – The Novel
Nightmare Alley is based on the bestselling book of the same name, written by William Lindsay Gresham. It was Gresham’s first, and he wrote it while working at a true crime pulp magazine. It’s interesting to note that it took him a number of years to outline and write the first six chapters, but then he wrote the rest of the novel in four months. Nightmare Alley has been lauded for its powerful dialogue, but it’s a powerful story even though it’s incredibly dark. As the LA Times says: this delirious and unstoppable novel…inverts the American dream. If you like noir and old crime classics, this is worth a read.
The Best of Film Noir – A Few Tidbits
Unlike many noir that were produced on low budgets, Nightmare Alley had a much bigger budget. 20th Century Fox even built a full working carnival and brought in real carnival people and attractions to give the film authenticity. And for an intriguing look at Nightmare Alley’s psychosexual themes, read Nightmare Alley – Edmund Goulding – 1947.
If you enjoy film noir, read my Reed Ferguson mystery series. Reed is a wannabe private eye who loves film noir and crime fiction, and these mystery novels are consistently well-reviewed: This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, Reel Estate Rip-off, and the short story Elvis And The Sports Card Cheat. And stay tuned for a new Reed Ferguson mystery, available in the spring of 2012!
5 Star Review
There is little doubt that Renée Pawlish is a promising new voice to the comic murder/mystery genre. Quite noticeable…is Pawlish’s adept development of the plot coupled with her ability to contrive clear, concise and playful prose with almost perfect pacing.
Norman Goldman, Bookpleasures Publisher and Editor (Amazon top reviewer)