Talk about a grim, uncompromising assessment of humanity's place in the cruel circus of life. If it wasn't for Tyrone Power personally shepherding this disturbing project from start to finish it is safe to say that NIGHTMARE ALLEY, based on the gritty novel by William Lindsay Graham, would never have been made.
Fresh off his performance in THE RAZOR'S EDGE, Power was determined to undertake another role that would elevate his career from merely being thought of as the equivalent of cinematic eye candy. Power believed that he could deliver the performance of a lifetime portraying Stanton Carlisle, a simple down-and-out carnival miscreant who reaches the heights of respectable, tuxedo-attired, big-city showmanship, only to plunge back to the lowest depths of carney life. In this reviewer's opinion he succeeds. For the record, it is well documented that before tragically dying at the age of 45 Power felt the same way.
The three women in his life, Joan Blondell, the Tarot card reader who is as "reliable as a two-dollar coronet," Coleen Gray, the innocent, loving girlfriend/wife, and Helen Walker, the manipulative psychologist who out-cons the con man, collectively take Stanton Carlisle, and the audience, full circle. Notice I said "the audience" -- and it isn't just the on-screen audience that is being elaborately conned, it is the off-screen audience, you and me, that is being conned as well, in what can only be described as a subtle, but brilliantly conceived undercurrent that lies within this moody, malignant, magnificent melodrama.
Originally underpromoted by a nervous studio (Twentieth Century-Fox) and then "lost" for over 50 years due to a legal dispute regarding the ownership rights to the production, NIGHTMARE ALLEY has since acquired something of a cult following. This is due, in part, to two surprising thematic elements which elevate the compelling, neatly symmetrical fatalistic viewpoint which fans of film noir embrace. One is the film's attitude toward psychology as being nothing more than an elaborate scam, more sophisticated, perhaps, but no less manipulative than carnival showmanship. Prior to NIGHTMARE ALLEY, films, at least American films, treated the field of psychology with reverence. Just as cynical is the portrayal of religion, with what can only be called an insidious comparison between devout faith and misplaced credulity, between solemn sermonizing and a charasmatic's charlatanism.
And then there is the ending...
Carney #1: "How can a guy sink so low?"
Carney #2: "He reached too high."
Is there a more poetic, ironic, heart-rendering and devestating denouement in cinema history? One would be hard pressed to find one, the closest in recent times perhaps being found in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. (The very last line spoken -- "I'm finished..." -- chills to the bone.)
In the final analysis, it is a testament to Tyrone Power and the power of film that NIGHTMARE ALLEY remains a must-see over 60 years after it was originally released. Could there be something of an inner geek in us all?