The 1947 ‘Nightmare Alley’: A Dark View of Class as Destiny

At the premiere of his new drama “Nightmare Alley” this month, the director Guillermo del Toro told the audience he had read the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham — the film’s official source material — before seeing the classic 1947 adaptation with Tyrone Power. But there’s no question the first movie was a significant influence on del Toro and Kim Morgan, who wrote the screenplay together. Their parting line comes straight from the original script, by Jules Furthman.

Like the update, the 1947 version (available to stream on the Criterion Channel), follows a carnival worker, Stan, eager for higher stakes. Stan (Power, in the role now played by Bradley Cooper) picks up some tricks from a washed-up vaudeville couple, Zeena and Pete, whose former ambitions have been reduced to a small-time fairground routine. Eventually Stan runs off with a co-worker, Molly, and they start a mentalist act targeting Chicago high society.

The movie has long been a favorite of repertory programmers and noir festivals. But its enduring appeal is not easy to pin down.

You can’t chalk it up to auteurism. The director was the British-born Edmund Goulding (“Grand Hotel”), whom Andrew Sarris, in his pioneering survey of Hollywood filmmakers, “The American Cinema,” placed in the “lightly likable” category: “talented but uneven directors with the saving grace of unpretentiousness.” Sarris noted that even Goulding’s best films, “Nightmare Alley” included, were seldom thought of as his, and pointed out that “Grand Hotel” won best picture without a nomination for direction.

Sarris also called Goulding’s career “discreet and tasteful,” but “Nightmare Alley” is hardly that. In an extra on the Criterion Channel, Imogen Sara Smith, author of “In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City,” notes that Goulding may have had an unexpected affinity for the material. In private life, she says, he “had quite a scandalous reputation,” adding that “he struggled with drinking and drugs, and he was rumored to host wild bisexual orgies.”

“Nightmare Alley,” made under the restrictions of the Production Code, would never have been able to show anything that sordid. But it is a dark and cynical film, and it makes a good test case for film noir, a category that resists clear definition. As has often been written, noir is not quite a genre, a mood or a style. “Nightmare Alley” isn’t a mystery or even much of a thriller. But it induces a soul-sickening feeling that courses through your system like the wood alcohol that poisons one of the characters. The sense of fatalism, a noir staple, is pervasive.

The original film also isn’t subtle in its depiction of class as destiny. Early on, it’s made clear that Zeena and Pete (Joan Blondell and Ian Keith) have “already been in the big time” but have reverted to their natural place: an unsatisfying life of traveling carnival work, with Zeena performing a mind-reading act while a perpetually soused Pete provides covert assistance. A main attraction of the carnival — and an act that fascinates Stan — is the geek, who appears to bite the heads off chickens. (“I can’t understand how anybody could get so low,” Stan says at the film’s beginning, in an indication both of his confidence and his poor awareness of his station.) When Stan finally meets his match, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker, in the role Cate Blanchett plays in the 2021 movie), it’s significant that she’s a psychologist — not just someone who understands how Stan ticks, but a person with money and status, which give her a decisive advantage over Stan as a con artist. (Blanchett’s introduction is another element del Toro borrows more from Goulding’s film than from the text.)

While the new film has Zeena making advances on Stan, the 1947 adaptation had to be more allusive. There’s a real smolder in a simple moment when Power plants kisses on Blondell’s arm and she returns them with a caress. But for Stan, in the 1947 version more than in the book or the new film, sex seems to be an ancillary interest. “I’ll not even look at another fella. Never,” Molly (Coleen Gray) promises him shortly after they are married. But at the moment she makes that promise, Stan isn’t even looking at her. He’s staring offscreen with stars in his eyes, thinking of the money they’ll make together.

The positioning of the actors — with Power slyly grinning and looking away from the prospect of a happy home life — is the kind of touch that suggests Goulding knew what he was doing. The cinematography by Lee Garmes isn’t filled with the smoky, jaw-dropping shots that Garmes did for Josef von Sternberg on “Dishonored” or “Shanghai Express,” but the cluttered, tarp-filled carnival scenery affords him ample opportunities to bathe the actors in menacing shadows. (On rarely screened, flammable nitrate film, Garmes’s images pack an especially silvery chill.) Apart from two street shots in a taxi scene, Chicago is conjured almost entirely through set design, dialogue and rear projection.

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Ultimately, what makes “Nightmare Alley” enduring may be its suggestion that we’re all susceptible to being taken in — and perhaps even want to be. In both movies, the story builds to a moment when Stan, nearing the bottom of a downward spiral, suddenly comprehends that he’s become a sucker.

While del Toro’s update adds details from the novel that wouldn’t have passed censors in 1947 and closes with more of a gut-punch, on a bleaker line (while overelaborating much else), the 1947 version is still the definitive one, leaner and meaner.

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