Side Shows

Citizen Kane was the movie that raised the artistic ante among American filmmakers—although, as Manny Farber noted in a piece called "The Gimp," Kane's influence seemed "to have festered in Hollywood's unconscious" for a few years until after World War II. "Then it broke out in full force."

Nightmare Alley, opening Friday at Cinema Village in a brand-new 35mm print, was one such wannabe Kane. This 1947 account of an archetypal American's rise and fall is neither a great movie nor even a classic noir but it has a great ambition to be daring and, once seen, is not easily forgotten. The movie suggested far more than it showed but what it showed, including the climactic degradation of 20th Century Fox's then-major star Tyrone Power, was remarkably sordid for so high-profile a release.

Excitingly tawdry, as well as self-defeatingly slick, this backstage excursion through the showbiz lower depths was based on the doggedly poetic pulp novel by William Lindsay Gresham (perhaps the only drugstore shocker inspired by T.S. Eliot). The project was evidently initiated at Power's request and involved a number of high-powered professionals. Howard Hawks associate Jules Furthman wrote the hard-boiled adaptation for high-gloss director Edmund Goulding; Sternberg cameraman Lee Garmes provided the opalescent cinematography. The early sequences are nearly timeless in introducing the carnival world of marks and rubes, Gypsy fortune-tellers, dimwitted strongmen, and the unseen geek—a broken-down alcoholic who bites the heads off live chickens for a daily bottle of booze and a place to sleep it off.

Circus maximus: Gray and Power in Nightmare Alley
Circus maximus: Gray and Power in Nightmare Alley

Details

Nightmare Alley
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Written by Jules Furthman, from the novel by William Lindsay Gresham
A Criterion Films rerelease
At Cinema Village
Opens January 28

Negative Space
Directed by Chris Petit
At the American Museum of the Moving Image January 29

The Cup
Written and directed by Khyentse Norbu
A Fine Line Features release
Opens January 28

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Nightmare Alley doesn't begin to approach the vérité ferocity of Tod Browning's Freaks. The dappled studio lighting and artfully cluttered midway mise-en-scène suggest a rancid Oz forever stuck in Kansas. When the movie opened in October 1947, Variety found it both grimly realistic and horrifyingly fantastic. Writing in Time, James Agee praised the cynical humor and sharp social observation, although both seem to have evaporated over the past half-century. Nightmare Alley is a grim morality tale in which gum-chewing smoothie Stanton Carlisle (Power, who appears in virtually every scene) graduates from barker to mind-reading mentalist to big-time spiritualist, while stringing along a succession of female costars—notably Joan Blondell as a warmhearted soothsayer and Colleen Gray as a winsome circus girl.

While it's difficult to accept the inexpressive Power as a brilliant con artist, many have noted that he's a more convincing fake mystic here than he was a real one in his previous feature The Razor's Edge (also directed by Goulding). Once Stan makes the big time in deco Chicago, the best performers have been left behind—Blondell, Ian Keith's inebriated cuckold, James Flavin's tough carnie boss. Worse, the visuals go fussy and inert, imprisoning the performers in streamlined shadow patterns even as the filmmakers keep jerking what Farber called the "gimp string," making sure the spectator makes the connection between traditional suckerbait and its modern manifestations (Freudian jargon, secret recording devices). It's at this point that the Great Stanton meets the movie's ultimate femme fatale, "consulting psychologist" Lilith Ritter (ice queen Helen Walker), a society shrink who's working her own racket.

It's tempting to read Nightmare Alley as an allegory about what the religion of showbiz gives an audience. The movie eluded the Production Code in several small ways, mainly allowing its antihero to enjoy sexual dalliances outside of marriage and its villainess to escape unpunished. The fake redemptive ending doesn't mitigate the sordid trajectory—or the movie's too obvious sense of being pleased with itself, as expressed in Dr. Ritter's ostentatiously grown-up view of human nature. "You're a perfectly normal human being," she coolly tells Stan. "Selfish and ruthless when you want something, kind and generous when you've got it."

At the very least, Nightmare Alley added a new line to the compendium of conventional wisdom. Just as you should never eat at a diner called Mom's, nor sit down to play poker with a guy who's known as Doc, it's not smart to trust your secret to a dame named Lilith.

** Were Nightmare Alley less pumped up, it might have been a great B movie. The destructive inflation is a classic example of the syndrome Manny Farber described so pungently in "White Elephant Art vs Termite Art." The 82-year-old Farber, recent recipient of a special award from the New York Film Critics Circle, is himself the subject of Chris Petit's 40-minute BBC portrait, showing Saturday afternoon at AMMI to preface a four-weekend series in which various NYFCC members introduce movies of the '90s they deem insufficiently appreciated.

Named for Farber's newly reissued collection, Negative Space is a tricksy, free-associative travelogue in which "the road becomes a movie, becomes the memory of other movies." Typically shown as frames within frames, these movies are mainly Farber favorites. Some are film noirs but—a bit illogical in view of Petit's romantic view of the American landscape—just as many are European. This Negative Space actually owes more to the peregrinations of Jean Baudrillard than to Farber: "If [Negative Space] has a destination, it's Las Vegas," Petit murmurs, "the ultimate movie set, the great unreal city."

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