Just as the Second World War ended, the 1946 novel Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham became a bestseller. Perhaps more than any other, the noir genre fitted the mood of Post–war America. It was a nation that had not yet emerged blinking into the Technicolor 1950s of Eisenhower and later prosperity. It was an America still dealing with the war and living with its consequences. The book’s author, William Lindsay Gresham, is largely forgotten today, other than as the husband of Joy Davidman, the woman who subsequently married C.S. Lewis.
Lindsay Gresham’s novel came out of a chance meeting a decade earlier. He was in Spain aiding the Loyalist side during the country’s civil war. While so doing he met a former carnival worker who told him a curious tale. The resultant themes and strange subject matter of Nightmare Alley seem to fit easily into the then popular noir literary genre. It was a genre equally popular on screen as it was on the page. There are many Hollywood films of this Post-war period that depict men on the brink of madness, often driven there by circumstance. Films lit in a monochrome semi-gloom, with plotlines that have ambivalent endings, fueled by sad, hard-bitten dialogue. Gresham’s Nightmare Alley spawned the 1947 film of the same name with the original plot made slightly more palatable for a cinema audience. That the movie is as dark as it is, says something about the spirit that hovered over the original work and its author.
The plot is straightforward enough. The story opens at a travelling carnival with a ‘geek’. The geek shows were often used as openers for what are commonly known as freak shows. The unfortunate ‘geeks’ were often alcoholics or drug addicts, and paid with liquor – especially during Prohibition – or with narcotics. As is the case in the Nightmare Alley carnival, the ‘geek’ is a spectacle both pitied and feared by his fellow carnival workers, not least by Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (played by Power). Carlisle has other things on his mind though. He is intrigued by how much money is being made through the carnival’s ‘fortune teller’. Soon Carlisle has embarked upon a new career as a clairvoyant, fortune telling for a price. This has disastrous consequences for all who come into contact with him, and, inevitably, for Carlisle. Events soon spiral out of control as the descent into a bleak tomorrow begins for the man who claimed the power to see into the future. By the end, Carlisle has become that thing he feared most: the ‘geek’. Even watching it today, many decades later, it is a disturbing ending. Nightmare Alley has one of the most complete annihilations of the human being spirit portrayed on screen.
In hindsight, the casting of Tyrone Power in the lead was an inspired choice. Unfamiliar to modern audiences, the Irish-American Power was one of the most popular male leads of the 1930s and 40s. Although not quite as good an actor as James Stewart or Errol Flynn, Power’s Irish charm and wholesome All American good looks made him just as much a matinee idol as these more gifted actors.
Power was the scion of a well-known theatrical family. His father had achieved fame treading the theatrical boards, then the most popular entertainment medium. Power Junior, however, embraced the most popular medium of his day: cinema. His rise to fame seemed easy. After one brief, failed attempt to break into screen acting, aged just 22 years old, as if destined for stardom, he simply headed once more to Hollywood. Upon arrival, after merely one screen test, he was offered the lead in a Henry King movie, Lloyd’s of London (1936). Power, it could be said, started at the top. But, as we all know, once on that pinnacle, there is only one place to go.
By the late 1940s, Power was looking for a change of direction in his acting career. During the war, he had served, and been decorated, in the United States Air Force, flying missions in the Pacific. Like many of his fellow countrymen he had left for war while still relatively young only to return much older than his years. His first film role on being demobbed was the 1946 screen adaptation of Somerset Maughan’s The Razor’s Edge. It is the story of an idealistic veteran of the Great War who, dissatisfied with life, seeks refuge and peace in Tibetan mysticism. The movie’s themes fitted the Post-war longing for some sort of escape to a better world. Power’s next movie project was Nightmare Alley. This was also about longings, if darker ones.
The somber plotline of Nightmare Alley suited the mood of many of the acting talent working on the picture. Looking down the cast list most of its actors were in the throes of a divorce while making the film. Power was no exception. He was in the midst of a messy separation from his first wife. Some of the marital strife amongst the actors was, doubtless, on account of Hollywood, with all its attendant stresses and strains. Other divorces, though, were on account of the recent war. Many had left home for the front smiling, only to come back sullen men. There is something of this in the part Power plays in Nightmare Alley. Many critics praised his performance. Some said Power’s fraudulent fortune-teller was, to date, his best role. Maybe that was because the story of a disillusioned man on the make now fitted the movie star perfectly.
The carefree matinee idol movies in which Power had starred prior to the war now seemed to belong to a different world, and to a different man. The Post-war films that involved existential struggle, and a search for meaning in the midst of illusions was closer to how many felt, including the star of Nightmare Alley. Some of the films that Power made in the 1950s would recall his earlier triumphs prior to the war, but, even in these films, there is an air of jadedness about the star actor that he cannot seem to shake. At times, there is a look in his eyes. It is a look that becomes ever more present no matter what the role, no matter what the line spoken, no matter how pretty the leading lady embraced. It is a look that has seen more than it cares to remember, or rather a look that sees through what the world has to offer.
Nightmare Alley had mixed reviews upon release. Soon after that, it disappeared from view. Legal wrangles kept it from a video release for many decades to come. Nevertheless, its reputation grew among cinephiles. Today, watching the film, it appears to have a strange forcefulness, a dark energy. The fake medium’s predictions of wealth and fame sound hollow, even more so now than when spoken several decades earlier. But there is here on screen something else. The darkness that permeates the film, the despair and the rage within its frames would not seem out of place in today’s world. Nightmare Alley presents a world where there is no salvation, only retribution. There is no truth here, only lies, and with it a punishment coming that cannot be escaped, no matter how hard one tries to evade it or rages against it.
There is also an implied warning within the film. The New York Times film critic noted this when he said, ‘If one can take any moral value out of Nightmare Alley, it would seem to be that a terrible retribution is the inevitable consequence for he who would mockingly attempt to play God.’
Aged 44, Power died less than a decade after making Nightmare Alley. A Catholic, he was denied burial in consecrated ground due to his very public divorce.
Aged 53, William Lindsay Gresham, the original novel’s author, killed himself in a Time Square hotel room in 1962. A printed business card was found beside him. It read: NO ADDRESS, NO PHONE, RETIRED, NO BUSINESS, NO MONEY.
In December 2017 a remake of Nightmare Alley was announced.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a picture of Tyrone Power.