After "The Razor's Edge," "Nightmare Alley" forms the second half of Tyrone Power's deliberate efforts to move away from the more traditional pretty boy and swashbuckling roles of his past. Although "Edge" revealed Power's ability to downplay a less assertive character in what was essentially an ensemble cast production, in "Nightmare," the actor challenged the public's loyalty in accepting him as an unsavory, selfish carny. When originally released, the gamble didn't pay off at the box office.
Unavailable for years due to legal issues, Power's pet project finally gets a deserved home video release as part of Fox' film noire series. Even if you're familiar with the most dour noire, "Nightmare" is a vicious, shockingly subversive little gem. Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, screenwriter Jules Furthman stayed true to the book's atmosphere, and retained the vivid characters and carny minutia borne from Gresham's own intense, obsessive research.
Like their other commentary tracks in Fox' series, historians James Ursini and Alain Silver cover all the bases, and describe the author's short and very unhappy life, during which he produced only one best-selling novel. The screenplay is unique for turning away from the standard cliches, and for giving even the most selfish characters vestiges of humanity..
"Nightmare" is also an advancement in the cinematic portrayal of a niche social stratum: in Todd Browning's iconic "Freaks," the emotions, cruelties, and horrors within a carny troupe are far more extreme, and restricted from the outside, 'normal' world (or kept in exhibition pens); in "Nightmare," the performers subsequently venture into the general populace, and alternatively exploit the average and the wealthy, preying on their curiosity for the bizarre, and their innate gullibility. More unique, though, is how the horror in "Nightmare" resides in the effects of resonating guilt, greed, jealousy, and humiliation within the carny folks.
It's an extraordinary, meaningful film, and Power's trickster/celebrated mind-reader/medium morphs into a kind of figurative priest; the script rarely invokes direct religious terminology, yet the film's depiction of a plastic, priestly figure with a rapacious and morally fractured persona predates the more overt filmic assaults in director Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter" (1955), and Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry" (1960).
Fox' DVD transfer is gorgeous, and showcases the extraordinary cinematography of Lee Garmes - best known for his work in "Scarface" (1932) "Duel in the Sun," and "The Desperate Hours" (1955) - and the film contains a potent, dissonant score by Cyril Mockridge that further exploits the pain of Power's 'defrocked' medium.
After "Nightmare," director Edmund Goulding seemed to eschew dark subjects, and would direct less challenging fodder, including teen-themed comedy-dramas, and the Marilyn Monroe quickie, "We're Not Married!"
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan