Film Review: Nightmare Alley (1947)

Release Date: October 9th, 1947
Directed by: Edmund Goulding
Written by: Jules Furthman
Based on: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
Music by: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Mike Mazurki

20th Century Fox, 110 Minutes


“Wait a minute mister, you’re not talking to one of your chumps. You’re talking to your wife! You’re talking to somebody who knows you red, white and blue. And you can’t fool me anymore.” – Molly

A film-noir starring Tyrone Power? Okay, you’ve got my attention and that’s all it took!

I love film-noir but before my love affair with that cinematic style, I was a huge fan of classic swashbuckling movies. Many of the greatest Hollywood swashbucklers starred the charismatic and ruggedly beautiful Tyrone Power. If there was ever a guy I’d go gay for, Tyrone Power is probably it.

You can’t deny the man’s charm, his presence and the fact that he oozes with coolness and masculinity. Plus, he is a guy that has a lot of fun in his roles. Here, he is mostly serious and less playful than he was as Zorro or as Jamie Waring in The Black Swan (the 1940s swashbuckler not the creepy Natalie Portman ballerina movie from a few years back).

What makes this such a unique experience is that it’s a noir that takes place at a carnival. Well, large portions of the film. It’s like The Maltese Falcon meets Freaks. Okay, it’s not that extreme and there aren’t really any “freaks” in the movie. There’s just a “geek” but that is a pretty important archetype, as you will see by the end of the film.

Tyrone Power plays a con man named Stan. Stan finds himself at a traveling carnival where he witnesses the crafty “psychic” Zeena, who uses an elaborate code with her showman husband, in an effort to name objects her husband displays from onlookers, while she is blindfolded. Power obsesses over the trick and must discover the secret of the code. He kills Zeena’s husband, albeit accidentally, and uses the opportunity to romance her in an effort to be her next partner. She eventually lets him in on her crafty carnival scheme. Stan, all the while, has been romancing the younger Molly, and when the two are exposed, they are forced out of the carnival community. Stan uses this to his advantage though, as he travels to Chicago and uses the carnival trick to make himself a superstar. Of course, this is noir, and there can be no real happy ending for Stan and his cons.

As much as I love Tyrone Power for that playfulness I mentioned earlier, he has never been better than this, where his playfulness is put on the back burner. Sure, he was great alongside the legendary Orson Welles in Prince of Foxes, but he was still his typical fun and charming character and even got to swashbuckle a little in that film. Here, in Nightmare Alley, he truly shows who he is, as an actor, when he is able to shed the baggage of what Hollywood thought he should be.

While this film wasn’t an immediate success, it is now considered a classic and for good reason. It is the best I have ever seen Tyrone Power, period. And the creation of this movie was all in Power’s hands. You see, he bought the rights to the novel and decided to star in this because he wanted to break being typecast as swashbucklers. 20th Century Fox obliged him and he got to have his movie made. While it didn’t work out commercially, upon release, in the years since, it worked to Tyrone Power’s advantage as later generations have something to look at to see how accomplished the man was on screen and that he had a range beyond the majority of the roles he was pushed into.

Truthfully, Nightmare Alley is really a top ten film-noir. There are only a few films better than it in the noir style. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, that are nowhere near as good.

Nightmare Alley is the high point of Tyrone Power’s career, from an acting perspective. At least, I haven’t come across anything greater, at this point, but I have watched a ton of Power’s films. He took a risk with this but it paid off, in the long term. After actors come and go, it’s that legacy that they leave behind that lives on for generations. This is the peak of Tyrone Power’s incredible legacy, as an actor.

Rating: 8.5/10

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