Saturday, May 04, 2019

Nightmare Alley (The Nitrate Picture Show)


Nightmare Alley. Joan Blondell (Mademoiselle Zeena), Ian Keith (Pete, her alcoholic husband), and Tyrone Power (Stan Carlisle, the carnival barker).

Painajaiskuja / Mardrömsgränden.
Edmund Goulding, US 1947
Print source: UCLA Film and Television Archive, Los Angeles
Running time: 113 minutes
The Nitrate Picture Show (NPS), George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, Rochester, 4 May 2019.

NPS: About the print
Although the print has several edge nicks and some splices, the overall image and sound quality are excellent. The blacks are saturated to give the eerie feeling of night shadows and life on the dark side. Wonderful resolution is seen in the details. Shrinkage: 0.60%

About the film
“Nightmare Alley sets out to prove, in an original setting, that though you can fool most of the people most of the time you will find in the end, quite simply, that dishonesty does not pay. It is nice to know that, at any rate in the film world, this principle still holds good. Mr. Tyrone Power rises from being a skillful circus trickster to reading written messages blindfolded in a night club, and then with the aid of an unscrupulous female psychoanalyst seeks fresh pasturage in the field of bogus spiritualism. It is here, while bringing spurious comfort to a naïve millionaire, that his fraudulence provokes heaven to justifiable anger. Cast into the awful darkness of drink, he ends up as a Geek, which is a half-man half-beast freak in a circus.”
— Virginia Graham, The Spectator, August 6, 1948

“Nightmare Alley is a harsh, brutal story told with the sharp clarity of an etching. There isn’t a really sympathetic or inspiring character in the show, but acting, direction and production values lift the piece to the plane of gripping drama. In spots it approaches the dignity of authentic tragedy. The picture will satisfy no demands for light entertainment, hence the box office is problematical and largely conditioned on the femme draw of Tyrone Power in the lead. The film deals with the roughest and most sordid phases of carnival life and showmanship. Despite the grim realism of its treatment, it has all the shuddery effect of a horror yarn.”
— Fisk, Variety, October 15, 1947 (NPS)

AA: Last night The Nitrate Picture Show ended with a Fox Technicolor musical. Today it begins with a Fox film noir made two years before.

Nightmare Alley was exceptional for all involved. Fox made fine films noir, but rarely of so dark and daring material. George Jessel, the original Jazz Singer, as a producer focused mostly on light entertainment. Tyrone Power was one of the studio's biggest stars best known for his roles in Jesse James, The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand. It was he who insisted on doing this film, and he demanded Edmund Goulding to direct. Goulding, best known as a women's director, had had a tremendous career starting as a screenwriter of Tol'able David, becoming a MGM house director working with Marion Davies, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford, then directing Bette Davis at Warner Bros. until he moved to Fox. There he directed the impressive Razor's Edge the year before, screened at this festival last year, also starring Tyrone Power.

The excellent screenplay is by Jules Furthman, based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham. The film is well cast, and knowing Goulding's experience, it is not surprising that female performances are outstanding. Joan Blondell, who had had her breakthrough as a pre-Code star at Warner Bros., was just experiencing one of her comebacks (she never stopped having them: one of her last films was Grease); at Fox she had just appeared in Elia Kazan's debut film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Her role as Zeena is deeply moving. As is Coleen Gray's as the young and naive Molly who refuses to follow through the grand scam plan. The true adversary to Tyrone Power's Stan Carlisle is the psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter impressively played by Helen Walker. "It takes one to catch one". Walker and Carlisle use their special skills for criminal purposes, but the upstart Stan is outwitted by Lilith.

Much of the special interest of the story is based on Gresham's intimate and detailed knowledge of the world he is portraying. Nightmare Alley belongs to the great carnival stories and it is also rewarding about mentalism, spiritualism, mind-reading, hypnotism, and "the spook racket". It is also a warning tale about the abuses of psychology, the possibility of criminal breaches in confidentiality. It is equally thought-provoking about the exploitation of religion. Like Orson Welles's F for Fake it is a film about the power of illusion with wide-ranging associations. With his mentalism Stan is able to move people more deeply than anybody else, although he is just a showman.

The tragic substance of the story is based on the fact that Stan has real talent and profound insight in psychology. He perishes because of his lack of ethics and professional discipline. He remains a charlatan, but he could have been more.

All this is conveyed brilliantly by Goulding and his team. Tyrone Power, often one of the cinema's "hollow men", succeeds here in a harrowingly tragic role. Although the material is sordid, the approach is not, thanks to the fundamental humanity of the performances. In this tale we are all victims of the Great Depression, trying to survive by any means necessary.

Lee Garmes, Josef von Sternberg's trusted DP, was currently also in favour of De Toth, Vidor, Hitchcock and Ophuls, also known as a "women's cinematographer". Here he displays his skill in film noir, displaying a darkness both physical and metaphysical. The brilliant UCLA print is mesmerizing to watch, conveying themes of illusionism and anti-illusionism in purely visual terms.

The screening of an authentic print confirms the original film's status as a masterpiece on the eve of a remake in pre-production by screenwriter Kim Morgan, director Guillermo del Toro and star Leonardo DiCaprio.

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