December 14, 2007

Nightmare Alley (Goulding, 1947)

Nightmare Alley is one of the more ludicrous noirs that I’ve come across, but I mean that as a compliment. Its carnival setting early on in the film instantly brings to mind Tod Browning’s Freaks, and the brief but memorable focus on the “geek” cements this comparison. The spectre of the “geek” and protagonist Stan’s notable horror at the very idea of falling so low provides the film with an eerie fatalism that contributes immensely to the tension inherent in his gradual “rise” to stardom. This whole concept of predetermination links nicely to the film’s concern with religion. Stan’s virtual pontification with his audiences introduces an omnipotent aspect that confuses the already-twisted proceedings, and which suggests that his downfall might have something to do with his own divine retribution. Moreover, the fascination with tarot cards (and their unnerving reliability) as well as the ease with which Stan manages to deceive so many of his followers is surely a reflection upon the status of faith systems as a whole, and their relevance to contemporary society? The film toys with these fascinating ideas, and as such it never quite plays by the rules. For sure, there are certain noir hallmarks here: the chiaroscuro lighting is as vibrant as one could expect, as is the heavy undertone of cynicism. However, the film’s a deviant in other respects: it transposes much of its drama to the bizarre and unconventional setting of the carnival (whose grotesqueries remain lodged in the memory even during the lengthy time we spend in the city); there’s a peculiar redefinition of the femme fatale, who is reimagined as an almost androgynous and sexually ambiguous intellectual dominatrix; and even for a noir, the eventual depths to which our ‘hero’ sinks defies belief. For all it’s structural issues (the final act, although powerful, is somewhat rushed in comparison to the leisurely set-ups that precede it) and its distasteful-yet-necessary redemption at film’s end, the inspired performance from Tyrone Power and the sheer audacity with which it tackles its themes is more than enough for me to give Nightmare Alley a free pass.

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