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Nightmare Alley
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by Jay Seaver

"Cheats & geeks."
3 stars

Most film noirs involve scams of some sort, as do certain types of entertainment. The difference is that a patsy in a confidence game is not on some level making a choice to play along, consciously or unconsciously, the way the person in the audience of a magic show is. Well, that and the amount of money that changes hands. The basic skills, though, are highly transferable, which is the start of a decent story.

Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is with the traveling circus, a barker with an eye for the ladies who assists "psychic" Zeena (Joan Blondell) while her drunk of a husband, Pete (Ian Keith), assists out of sight. It wasn't always low-rent sideshows for Zeena and Pete, though - they once headlined vaudeville shows with a mentalist act, and even now Zeena steadfastly refuses to sell their highly-valuable code. Once Stan gets wind of this, he starts working on her, eventually learning the code himself - and lighting out for Chicago with Molly (Coleen Gray), who doesn't have so many miles on her. The act is a hit, but with success comes temptation - and sharp-witted psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) represents it in two forms.

Nightmare Alley starts out with a fairly tight script, but like Stan, it occasionally falls victim to its own ambition. It starts out working the line between lying on stage and lying for real, and just how far Stan's amorality can go. The second half, on the other hand, seems like a bit more of a stretch: It makes the jump from deception we allow in the name of entertainment to talking about faith, but doesn't have the teeth to really get into that comparison (among other things). It also pushes suspension of disbelief a little far; the story runs on people being credulous, but you can only take that so far. The fall from grace just isn't handled as well as the rise.

Still, the film does have its good points. Tyrone Power is a big one; the script quickly establishes Stan as right around "amoral" as far as virtue goes, but Power's able to blur the line between that and swagger, giving him the ability to charm not just the characters, but the audience. You can argue whether or not the circus folk should no better, but we've got no excuse. The three ladies he's paired off with each play their role well; I'm especially partial to Joan Blondell's aging but still vibrant Zeena, but Gray's ingenue and Walker's intellectual have their appeal.

And though the script telegraphs where it's going early on - you may not figure out every step the film will take from Stan's discussion with a roustabout about the geek show, but you can see the final destination - director Edmund Goulding and company make the trip worthwhile. At nearly two hours, Nightmare Alley is long for its genre and period, but it gives the film time to move its characters up and down in society without things seeming too rushed, and there's a fun atmosphere to the circus scenes, both in how they present to the public and how they are tight-knit but still occasionally at odds behind the scenes.

"Nightmare Alley" has spots of excellence, although it also has some major stumbles. Tyrone Power is a fine the main attraction, and some of the sideshows are worth seeing as well.

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originally posted: 03/26/10 00:16:36
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User Comments

7/26/19 Anne well done 4 stars
7/04/05 jackal terrific, powerful film noir 5 stars
6/06/05 R.W. Welch Stark, grim tale of the rise and fall of a charlatan. Unforgettable noir. 5 stars
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  DVD: 07-Jun-2005



Directed by
  Edmund Goldberg

Written by
  Jules Furthman

  Tyrone Power
  Coleen Gray
  Joan Blondell
  Helen Walker
  Taylor Holmes
  Mike Mazurki

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