Watching Resolution: Nightmare Alley (1947)

2. A black and white film: Nightmare Alley (1947)

List Progress: 5/12

There are few settings as narratively rich as a carnival or circus. An author can tell a travel story, a con-artist story, a performer story, a runaway story, a mysterious past story, and much more, all with a veneer of both glitz and skeeze. The 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, used the setting to great avail, and it was adapted a year later into a noir film of the same name. The 1947 Nightmare Alley is an atmospheric, moody descent into depravity, and while it loses some of its way in the third act (not coincidentally at the same time that the story leaves the carnival), the result is still a potent piece of filmmaking (and arguably a more successful film than the recent 2021 adaptation).

Nightmare Alley follows Stanton Carlisle, a carnival worker who tries to con his way into glory, only to fly too close to the sun. He starts as a basic roustabout, but finds where his true talents lie when he gets involved with the carnival’s mentalism act. He hits the road with his girlfriend in tow to sell himself as a psychic, and it’s not too long before this evolves into some serious delusions of grandeur. He teams up with a scheming psychiatrist to try his biggest con yet, but his hubris and his disregard for those around him were always bound to catch up with him. 

The movie is at its best when it is a close, tight character piece; Stan’s relationship with the carnival mentalists, a passionate woman named Zeena and her alcoholic husband Pete, brings a lot of nuance and detail to the first act, and the film is wise to introduce these relationships as already established. (The 2021 adaptation spends far, far too long getting to the meat of the story.) His rise to fame makes sense, but the biggest stumbling block for the film comes in Stan’s transition to “spook shows”, or convincing people that he can speak to their deceased loved ones. It becomes very unclear what his actual goals and methods are, and how much he and those around him believe in what he’s peddling, which makes it harder to determine where the con begins and ends. 

Despite these issues with the third act, Nightmare Alley is a great bit of noir filmmaking, with great central performances and images that will stay with audiences for a while. And at the very least, it’s fun to see a lot of spooky carnival tropes when they were still fairly new.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

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