TCM Film Festival Day 3: Nightmare Alley

I’m not a carney so I don’t speak with an insiders view of that world, but my family was in show business. My parents trooped with a variety of vaudeville, circus and carnival acts. My Dad was one of those magicians that the boss at the last carnival in this film said are a dime a dozen. He was close friends with well known mentalist Glen Falkenstein and helped him with information about stage mentalism from a vast array of books and portfolios that he owned. So I do come to this movie with a little bit of knowledge, a natural curiosity and a vivid memory of early times I’ve seen it.

Classified as a film noir because of the dark themes, it fits into that genre in an unusual way. There is no murder investigation, the crimes that are being committed are fraudulent but don’t seem physically dangerous just mentally cruel. There is no private eye, police detective or amateur sleuth trying to solve a problem. Helen Walker fits the role of femme fatale but no one dies as a result of the machinations of Stanton Carlisle and her psychologist Lilith Ritter, so the label “fatale” would be a misnomer. Still, there is a crime element to the film and some of the darkest most unpleasant on consequences occur in the course of the story.

I mentioned in an earlier post that a woman I ran into at another screening was dismissive of this film, preferring the book and really diminishing Tyrone Power as the lead. I thought Power was excellent. He comes across as a sharp guy with good heart, who can talk himself and just about everyone else into something not so good. Joan Blondell appears in a second of my TCM Festival films, I’d seen her on Friday in “the Cincinnati Kid”. Having packed a bucket load of 30s classics in her resume, she is a well known presence who is just aging out of the youthful roles she filled so often and is just right as the faded glamorous “Zeena”, the fortune telling mentalist that Stan sidles up to and manages to get a valuable secret from.

2015-03-29 09.46.51The host of our screening was Eddie Muller, the founder of Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco. He was enthusiastically grim when he described this as maybe the bleakest film noir ever. I was surprised to see that when he asked who was seeing this for the first time, three quarters of the house raised their hands. I will forever remember the line “You know what a geek is, don’t you”. Although there is another five minutes in the film, to me, that is the exit line that summarizes the whole film.

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