[I admit it, I’m not going to finish this damn thing, at least not any time soon. I do want to clear the decks, though, so I’m just gonna post what I’ve got and maybe come back to it later. Just forget the rough patches below—it’s really a good movie.]
Before the dork and the nerd came along, there was only the lonely, lowly geek. Unloved, unkempt and undernourished, prideless to the point of wallowing in his own filth, he spent his days biting the heads from live chickens to make paying customers feel better about themselves. “How’s a guy get to be a geek?” a fascinated, and not completely repulsed, Stanton Carlisle asks early on in Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley. The gruff carnival owner answers as best he can, but it’s a literal, A-B-C explanation that doesn’t address the core of Stan’s question. Nightmare Alley is the story of how Stan Carlisle—“The Great Stanton”, as he’ll be known to the world for one brief shining moment—learns the hard way that some people are just made for it.
Nightmare Alley is a specialty number from Hollywood’s Golden Age: it came about only because Tyrone Power, sick of dancing around with swords, scooped up the rights to William Lindsay Gresham’s clammy 1946 novel and told Twentieth Century-Fox that the golden goose had a wish of its own. The finished movie failed to elevate his career as he hoped, but it remains a potent experience today, with a troubling power to call up shadowy, sludge-like feelings. The tale of a young carny worker who rises through the ranks of the mentalist racket, only to have it all come crashing back down on him, it captures the feeling of lives ready to implode from their own emptiness, and the brash physical odors of canvas and sweat and grain alcohol. Goulding’s deceptively simple direction works hand in glove with Lee Garmes’ photography. Garmes, who captured most of the iconic views of Marlene Dietrich which you carry around in your head, is especially good here with times of day, such as a pre-dawn truck ride between towns, and the movie’s opening shot—a bored Joan Blondell eyeing the suckers at twilight—is a textbook example of how to quickly establish a complex mood.
Though its story includes both premarital and extramarital sex, and it freely conflates Christianity with spiritualism and psychoanalysis (and finds all of them lacking), Nightmare Alley doesn’t contain any of the taboo-breaking flourishes that Otto Preminger peppered his pictures with. Instead, its rot is worked into the corners of its being, like dirt grooved into the skin around your knuckles. The filthy undershirts, the ashtrays and whiskey bottles littering a bridge-table used for Tarot readings, the hollow buoyancy of a cheap calliope tune that Stan mindlessly whistles wherever he goes—all these things work together to create the feeling that something has burrowed under your skin, and is festering there.
Jules Furthman, who’d already written some of von Sternberg’s and Hawks’ greatest movies, retained much of Gresham’s dialog, and if it doesn’t look like much on the page, it comes fully alive in the mouths of Goulding’s perfect cast. Lines that look like nothing on the page: (“I don’t want you to tell me anyone else’s business”, “Every boy has a dog”, etc.)
Nightmare Alley’s most fully alive character is Zeena’s broken-down husband, Pete. A former vaudeville headliner, he’s become a bottle-a-day rum-dum whom Zeena must cajole into wakefulness before her performances. That’s when he slides himself into the hidden box beneath her stage, and relays to her the questions which the simple-minded rubes believe she’s divining from thin air.
“He looks like a dog just waiting for a bone,” Zeena says of him at one point, and when the camera cuts to Pete sitting on a prop-trunk, that’s exactly what Ian Keith looks like. Keith, a stage actor whose star never caught fire in the movies, looks as if he marinated himself in brine to play the decent, utterly wrecked Pete. [The spiel—“A dog is with him.” “Every boy has a dog.” Breakfast speech.]
Keith’s wasn’t the only sad-sack story to come out of Nightmare Alley. Edmund Goulding never got a shot at another decent script. The frosty, elegant Helen Walker was already in trouble when the movie premiered, thanks to a car wreck that mangled or killed three servicemen riding with her; Nightmare Alley was part of an unsuccessful campaign to put the scandal behind her, and she’d die of cancer at 47. And once the movie had inevitably bombed, Tyrone Power returned to light escapist fare, and for the most part remained there until a heart attack struck him down while shooting a sword-fight with George Sanders.
As for William Lindsay Gresham, well…Gresham, an intellectual vagabond who tried on all the isms of his day, caught the carnival bug listening to an old carny man he met while serving in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. The argot and the atmosphere hooked him immediately (he’d recycle many of the stories in Monsters of the Midway, a collection of carnival arcana), but his fascination went deeper: like Stanton Carlisle, he could sense his own sordid end in them, to the point of claiming that “Stan” was the true author of his novel. After Nightmare Alley established his reputation, Gresham wrote a loving biography of Houdini (he was friends with James Randi) and a hospital drama, and contributed stories to Fantasy and Esquire. But he drank too much and he abused his wife, the poet Joy Davidman, until she ran away to England, where she’d later marry a tamer brand of mystic: C.S. Lewis. (Their story is told—with saccharine and imprecision—in Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands.) Not to be slowed down, Gresham married his ex-wife’s cousin, then continued to drink, and continued to decline, until he was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Using an alias he checked into the Dixie Hotel*, the flophouse off Times Square where he’d written Nightmare Alley almost twenty years earlier, and ended it all.
Thanks to a dispute between its producer and studio, Nightmare Alley was out of circulation for decades; I first heard of it in the ’70s, and whoever it was that told me about it made it sound like the creepiest thing to ever come out of Hollywood. Nightmare Alley isn’t quite that, but it is lovely, dark and deep. Even if the seedy musicality of the carnival scenes gives way to a more standard studio feeling, it recovers in its final passages: the moment when Stan’s great scheme falls apart before his eyes, a double-cross in which we see a true master manipulator ply her trade, and the fine scene in which Stan gives a cold reading to a group of hobos, using a whiskey bottle in lieu of a crystal ball.
[Spain Rodriguez spends seven years on graphic novel, just last month resurrected again, this time as a musical]
* The Dixie Hotel is still around, though it’s known today as the Hotel Carter. Over the years it’s served as a homeless shelter, seen several suicides, and operated as a more or less open brothel. Whatever its name, it couldn’t have been any worse in Gresham’s day, not even if you were sharing his bed on the night he killed himself there. Here’s just a sampling of comments from the incredible 587 people who’ve given the Hotel Carter a “Terrible” rating, helping it earn its designation as “The Dirtiest Hotel in America”:
1) Blood on the Sheets the first day
2) On the second day the whole hotel completely ran out of toilet paper
3) Day 3 still waiting for toilet paper.
4) They never cleaned my room the 6 day i was there
5) I developed rashes form bed bugs
Our revolting room smelled like a homeless guy’s groin.
We came back to the hotel late at night and got attacked /fondled/groped by a drunk man who hopped in the elevator with us as the doors were closing.
We took a look at the uncleaned beds, one had an ice pack with someone’s blood on it and the other bed had no sheets on it.
The brown-stained bed cover and the rat racing in the hall outside had us thinking we’d need medical attention the next day if we stayed.
While waiting in the reception full of impatient and disappointed patrons, a body bag was pulled out of the elevator and news teams were streaming into the lobby.
You can see the pain in the eyes of the guests.