From all the sombre films in the noir genre Nightmare Alley struck me as the one that’s the most obscure and distinctly expressive in its figurative meaning. Edmund Golding definitely put a huge emphasis on cinematography, making it so dark and heavy-looking that it reminds even of an old and scary horror picture. Through the story of a covetous carnival worker, who turned into a known magician by scamming everyone on the road, the director reveals the true side of humanity and its innermost desires.
First of all, the imagery and very specific atmosphere surrounding the carnival grounds gives the shivers right from the start. Here we meet the magnificent Zeena (Joan Blondell), who is able to vow the audience with her ability to guess the questions that they wrote on small pieces of paper. She works with her drunken husband Pete (Ian Keith) and a friend named Stanton (Tyrone Powell). Even though Zeena is attracted to Stan, she still wants to help her boozer of a husband. In the meantime, Stan learns about a special carny code, which made the couple very famous some time ago. In a bizarre series of events and Pete’s sudden death (even though Stan took part in it only by accident, he still subconsciously knows that this will help him in getting what he wants the most) he is able to acquire the code, steal a pretty girl Molly (Coleen Grey) from the hands of a jealous half-wit Bruno (Mike Mazurki) and flee the carnival in order to start a career in real show business.
This is the moment when the movie takes on a much faster pace in its thrilling storyline. Stan rises to the position of an acclaimed magician. No one dares to doubt his abilities. Then along comes Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), a psychologist, who, impressed by Stan’s stunts, wants to work with him in order to scam a few rich people out of their money. However, as things seem to go as planned, the interference of some sort of ‘force from above’ (in relation to Zeena’s creepy tarot reading) turns Stan’s life upside down…
You can’t go wrong with casting Tyrone Power as the leading man. He is very convincing as the show-stealing (literally and metaphorically speaking) crook, who is actually able to bring down the house with his freakishly mysterious mind-reading skills.
The three women in Stan’s life bring a sense of reality to the movie and that’s what makes their appearances so valuable. Even when he thinks that no one can stop his joyous ride to stardom and big money, the girls are always there to remind him that he is just one stop behind falling into obscurity.
It’s strongly implied by the fantastic portrayals that all of the recurring characters are shabby and corrupted by the intense power of greed and dirty cash that comes along with it. It’s strange, because no one in this film can be connected with as much as a hint of positive attitude and emotions. Only Molly is able to put some heart into the picture, but somehow even she is possessed by the gloomy aura of this nightmarish flick.
Nightmare Alley, with a little help of its very murky imagery, proves a point that everyone should take into consideration. Being ambitious and trying to rise to the top is one thing. But being overly greedy and wily is yet another. Trying too hard to achieve a certain goal may easily end up with some very nasty consequences, sometimes. However, doing it in a most devious and immoral manner is bound to be a catastrophe. Stan felt it for himself, as he finally became the geek, a freak the he once felt so sorry for.