Nightmare Alley : Where’s the Gun
This article appeared in the November/December issue of The Dark Pages which is dedicated the world of Noir films.
The entire issue was dedicated to the Tyrone Power film released in 1947. The topic was put forth by Kristina at Speakeasy who was kind enough to offer me an opportunity to submit an article.
In the world of Noir that I grew up in, I was accustomed to seeing Bogie, Ladd or Andrews standing in the shadows with a trench coat pulled high, a hat low.
A bulldog in the shape of Edmond O’Brien either tracking a killer or in over his head with only one way out. Mitchum and Lancaster mixed up with a woman they can’t live without no matter what their conscience tells them. Gloria Grahame or Barbara Stanwyck using their “natural charms” and selfish desires to lead a good man to a bad ending and of course seeing Robert Ryan playing a tortured and usually doomed soul.
Nowhere in my earliest memories of film do I recall seeing matinee idol Tyrone Power gunning down the likes of Charles McGraw in a seedy motel room. However, brandishing a sword, toying with a bull and romancing the beautiful Linda Darnell, looking back is easy to visualize.
Perhaps it’s because Power never really made another noir themed film aside from “Witness for the Prosecution” ten years later that to me left him unassociated with the genre. All the while turning in what might possibly be his best performance in a role that allowed him more range than his earlier films, not to mention his ragged and used up appearance during the final reel. Apparently the “look” was making the front office and Darryl F. Zanuck cringe.
As we look back at the film and acknowledge its place in Noir cinema, what strikes me as odd is that it is missing so many of the key plot devices and props that time has associated with the genre. As well as the omission of actors who are more or less expected to turn up in a noir themed film.
Tyrone Power campaigned for a chance to star in this film seeing it as an opportunity to break out from his more or less expected film roles and heroic/romantic characters. Had he not done so I can’t help but see Dana Andrews assigned to the film or perhaps Richard Conte who was just starting his own march into gangster and Noir themed titles.
Joan Blondell seems another odd choice to make an appearance here. We’re a long way from the early to mid thirties and straight forward gangster films such as “Bullets or Ballots” from her Warner Brothers days. I’m also surprised that her character isn’t aggressively looking to replace her alcoholic husband with Powers’ character Stanton Carlisle who is clearly on the make to move up the ladder. You can just see a more familiar Noir lady of your choosing be it Marie Windsor or whomever leaning into Stanton to rid herself of hubby number one and get back to the top with a younger, better looking accomplice. But then once again this is where “Nightmare Alley” differs from what I’ve come to expect of the genre. It isn’t until Helen Walkers’ Lilith turns up that we have a more traditional femme fatale who seems to have some definite schemes of her own. After all, when Powers’ character is found out by Lilith, he replies “Takes one to know one.”
The backdrop settings of Nightmare Alley are not the usual locations either. After all, the title of this film does suggest a more typical place for our story to unfold. A carnival is a long way from the settings of standard fare such as “Criss Cross” or “Where the Sidewalk Ends”. No cross examination or dressing down from a superior in a big city police precinct in this. The latter half of the film has Stanton moving into the big time performing in a top line nightclub as opposed to a smoky gin joint that we might find Sterling Hayden tucked away in. It’s also a good ninety minutes until a train turns up if even for a heartfelt kiss goodbye. No “Narrow Margin” with a dash of “Human Desire” going on here. No taxi cabs in sight and a cheap motel room doesn’t make an appearance till the closing minutes.
Plot points associated with a Noir film such as murder (let alone a “serious crime”) never are committed in the film. An accidental death, assault causing bodily harm and an attempted swindle with a double cross between thieves is as close as we come.
No Philip Marlowe, ex-con or weary detective out to even an old score with the customary flashback and narration to move the story along. No dame sitting at a smoky bar serving as a barfly for our lead character or a fur wrapped bombshell ala Marilyn in The Asphalt Jungle.
Shady secondary characters are non-existent. There is no Peter Lorre or Dan Duryea waiting in the wings for their chance to lay claim to the leading lady and the cash or jewels from a heist job. A gunman or hired killer from the likes of Elisha Cook Jr. to Timothy Carey never shows up, which leads to the biggest surprise of all. A gun never turns up throughout the entire film.
I see the film as a departure from the typical noir themes of “The Killers” to “The Big Combo” to the backdrop of the fight game in “The Set-Up” and “Body and Soul”. The underworld and its’ characters have always played a role big or small in driving the plot of these films. This time out we’re treated to a different class of criminal. One who has the gift of gab as Power the actor so perfectly demonstrates in his getting rid of the local sheriff out to close the carnival down. Or his scenes with Colleen Gray doing his nightclub act. Yet even when he’s lost everything in the end he dazzles us with his conning of a fellow hobo. This Tyrone Power is a born salesman and a delight to watch. On the flip side, he shows us how cold hearted and selfish he can be as he uses those around him for his own gains. What he still manages to convey however is a conscience that could never propel him to the evil doings we’ve seen others do in Noir movies.
What firmly places “Nightmare Alley” into the Noir realm are a number of factors. Not least of which is the title. It alone could have been used on more than one Fritz Lang contribution to Noir cinema. The strongest factor has to be the very character of Stanton Carlisle himself, as he is clearly no Father O’Malley. His is the type to populate the cinema of shadows. At the outset we can just see his mind scheming; from thieving Blondell’s con game to using his loyal wife in order to swindle his way into a higher class of crime. Making the mistake of thinking he has a trustworthy partner in Lilith. Most importantly as with most central figures of Noir, his is clearly doomed to failure from the start. It’s just a matter of time before his own greed and a female of questionable ethics better him, cementing his downfall. Still, redemption is a firm possibility as we fade out.
The film itself directed by Edmund Goulding is a fine addition to 20th Century Fox’s late forties output. Goulding himself had previously worked with Power on “The Razor’s Edge” but would only do a handful of films after this one. Never again directing a Noir themed script.
What the film really offers us is a chance to see something a little off center from Tyrone Power. It would take another ten years and Billy Wilder before we would get to see him portray this type of character again.
The final lines of this film could be used in dozens of movies but with a character crashing as hard as Stanton did along with the physical toll it takes on Ty’s movie star looks, it fits perfectly.
“How can a guy get so low?”
“He reached too high.”