Geek Philosophy: Nightmare Alley

Like the travelling carnival itself, the carny movie, that strangest subgenre in Hollywood history, is a weird and scandalous thing: something blown in by night from somewhere else to stir up base desires; think of the controversy and the squeamishness – and the fascination – still inspired by the form’s greatest, most merciless archetype, Todd Browning’s Freaks (1931).

Adapted, brilliantly, by The Big Sleep‘s Jules Furthman from William Lindsay Gresham’s grim best-seller in 1947, the aptly named Nightmare Alley is one of the lesser known, but, once seen, most unforgettable movies of the geeks, freaks, hucksters and strongmen genre. It’s one of the least likely Hollywood classics.

The film was made at the instigation of its star, Tyrone Power, famous for his energetic outings as romantically costumed swashbucklers in movies like The Mark of Zorro (1940), and it was directed by Edmund Goulding, best known for lush melodramas like Grand Hotel (1932). But Power was just back from the war, and tired of flashing his teeth as the pretty-boy hero. Goulding, meanwhile, was a man whose surface gloss and devout Christianity wrestled by night with a shady taste for booze, drugs, omnisexual orgying and voyeurism.

Uniting on this project, the disreputable subject matter seems to have unleashed a whole parcel of hidden desires in both men. A world of shadows, tarots and fever, where geeks lie gibbering and screaming always just out of sight, like creatures from the film’s subconscious, Goulding’s movie sees the carny topple over into the pit of noir.

Cast against type at his own demand, Power is not a hero, but a conniving little sonofabitch. A smarmy, shifty midway barker with a shabby travelling freakshow, he charms all the secrets out of a fake, alcoholic mind reader, then sets himself up as a bigtime psychic, using his sweet-faced wife (Colleen Gray) to help con wealthy clients. It all goes wrong, of course, and his fall back down to the depths of the sideshow is very swift, very hard, and very hard to forget.

The film’s unrelenting darkness saw it bomb at the box office. Goulding never directed another notable movie. Power went back to his handsome, dependable adventuring. But, just for a moment there, they were onto something else altogether.