Nightmare Alley 1947: Fascinating Downward Spiral

This post is for the Jan 2022 Genre Grandeur hosted by Movie Rob.

1947’s Nightmare Alley starring Tyrone Power is a film about a man’s downward spiral. Yet, instead of becoming more and more depressing of a viewing (like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), it becomes more fascinating and intriguing as it goes on. Sure one could go out and watch the remake, but why do that when the original is already a timeless picture!

Nightmare Alley (1947) - IMDb

Honestly, the first time I ever saw this film, I didn’t care for it. It was summer 2015 and I watched it on my phone (a horrible method to watch long form videos) and I just lost interest in it once the narrative moved away from the carnival. Thankfully, my unpleasant viewing can be blamed on my viewing method. My second viewing came in 2021, when Criterion released it, and it was a far better experience.

Nightmare Alley tells the tale of carnie Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power). Stan starts off as the average carnie, working for the main attraction, Zeena (Joan Blondell) the mind reader and her assistant, the alcoholic Pete.

While the character of Pete played by Ian Keith doesn’t have very much screen time, his character is actually crucial because he serves as a cautionary model for Stan.

Unfortunately for Stan, the power to move up comes at the misfortune of others. Stan does move up to be the new mind reader with fellow carnie, Molly (Colleen Grey), but is forevermore haunted by a terrible accident of which he is responsible. (Seriously, I’m not gonna spoil it because its so good, I’m not gonna ruin key plot points from your viewing enjoyment!)

Eventually Stan and Molly become so successful they marry, leave the carnival and dazzle people with their, “mind reading abilities”, but eventually Stan meets his match in a psychiatrist, Lillith (Helen Walker). Together they plan to scam people: Stan can use his code to read minds, while Lillith can engage them in their deepest thoughts. Yet, it doesn’t take long for Stan to go from being the con to becoming the conned. Thus, he falls further and further until he becomes what he once felt sorry for: an alcoholic (and that’s only the personal part, not the professional).

Mister, Tyrone Power was made for this role!

What makes this picture so likable is the fact Tyrone Power got to prove his acting chops. He wanted to perform a wide range of characters, not just dashing adventure hero or swash buckler. With Nightmare Power gets to be the anti-hero, and a guy who falls so far that by the end the audience has run out of pity. Yet, at the same time, you still care about Stan, because he’s so likable.

Overall, Nightmare Alley is a fascinating film. Its psychological, thrilling, mysterious, and even film noir.
Sure the remake has all of the CGI effects and full color displays of vibrant carnival life, but the original has originality in spades- plus Hollywood legends. I can’t not mention what a scene stealer Joan Blondell is. Her role as Zeena has a limited appearance, but your eyes are on her every minute you see her.

In pictures, very rarely do you have films that undergo an audience reception transformation. The 1947 version will forever live as a piece of postwar angst and fear. It’s a piece of history and even if you’ve seen the 2021 version, the original is still a must see! 

3 thoughts on “Nightmare Alley 1947: Fascinating Downward Spiral

  1. I had never heard of this film (or the remake) prior to your post, but you’ve definitely intrigued me. 🙂

    Interestingly, you called out one of my top movies! 😀 My very first blog post was about the top 10 best movies I’ve seen so far in my lifetime (not necessarily my personal favorites, just BEST) – and I ranked They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? as my #1. It fascinates me as much as this one seems to fascinate you. The depressing qualities shocked me the first time, but something pulled me back to it – and I’ve watched it several times since, because it’s so intricate. (There’s so many layers and so much to see.) I guess I am attracted, in a way, to films where someone falls apart and has to put their pieces back together. In Horses, everyone’s pieces just shatter – but it brings out a stubbornly optimistic response in me every time. I wonder if this film will do the same. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. If you’re really ready for a rewatch, it’s on YouTube. That’s how I found it. I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but since Red Buttons was in the cast, I thought it was going to be a comedy. Seriously. I thought the title might be the punchline of a joke. Of course, it didn’t take me long to realize I was in for something else entirely! 🙂 And I agree, it is a great cast – from Red Buttons and the main players to the smallest supporting roles, everyone did a fantastic job. 🙂 Should you happen to try it again, I’d love to know if you liked it any better the second time around. 🙂 If I only saw it once and never went back, I would’ve thought I didn’t like it either, because it shocked me so badly. But like I said, something just pulled me back, and it was after my second viewing that I began to really appreciate it (although I do have to be in a particular sort of mood to want to watch it.) 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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