Nightmare Alley: Movie Review by Brandy Isadora

Nightmare Alley Review

By Brandy Isadora

Most people from my generation (early millennial) or later wouldn’t know who Tyrone Power is, much less be familiar with his work. Until his untimely death at the age of forty-four from a heart attack, Power was one of Hollywood’s greatest and most successful actors. He was both handsome and talented, and, once he was given a chance to play the leading role in the 1936 movie, Lloyds of London, Power won the hearts of American audiences and Hollywood. However, while Power was a respected actor, the studio was reluctant to let him take the role of Stan Carlisle in Nightmare Alley. Despite playing a vast array of roles, Power’s characters had always allowed him to remain handsome and distinguished. Nightmare Alley required Power to play a very dark and vulnerable person. The studio worried that audiences wouldn’t want to see this side of the famous actor. Power didn’t give up and eventually he went on to star in the 1947 film noir alongside Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, and Helen Walker.

Nightmare Alley is a modern day version of the story of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death. Stan Carlisle (Power) works as a carnie (carnival worker), but he has big dreams of becoming rich and famous. He is intrigued by the mentalist Zeena (Blondell), who has perfected a code with her husband, Pete, so that it appears that she can read anyone’s mind. Zeena’s act mesmerizes everyone, including Stan. Despite the fact that Zeena is a powerful mentalist, her success was dampened over time by Pete’s alcohol abuse. Zeena and Pete had, at one time, an incredible career with their psychic act. Yet, jealously and insecurity drove Pete to drink and he finally had to act as the carnival’s geek, a man hired to play the freak or monster.

Stan sees himself as being better than these carnival people. Ultimately when Pete is forced to leave Zeena’s act, Stan steps in as Zeena’s partner. Once Stan masters Zeena’s code, he steals it and decides to leave the carnival and strike out on his own with the beautiful, but innocent Molly (Gray) as his wife and performing partner. 

For a period of time, with their beauty and talent, Stan and Molly enjoy incredible success, but it’s never enough for Stan. While he basks in the attention of women who believe him to be truly psychic, Stan craves more power and money. He then decides that he will tell people that he has the ability to commune with the dead. Stan thinks he has the perfect plan, but, when the performance unravels, both he and Molly stand to lose everything that they have built together. Stan tries to remedy the situation, but now everyone knows that he’s a fake. Stan’s career and life appear to spiral into complete ruin.

Nightmare Alley, was produced by George Jessel and Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by Edmund Goulding. It is based on William Lindsay Greshman’s novel of that same name. When 20th Century Fox released the movie in 1947, critics gave it mixed reviews. Today the film is considered to be one of the greatest treasures from the film noir period, but back then audiences were not ready for the heaviness of the subject matter. Nightmare Alley is a powerful and unforgettable film because it portrays some of the darkest aspects of humanity. The talented cast brings the story to life. Joan Blondell is both mesmerizing and vulnerable as Zeena. No matter what character she plays, she is always relatable to the viewers. Tyrone Power very easily established the fact that he was an actor who could take on any role. At the beginning of the film, he is handsome, clever, and confident, but, by the end of the film, he completely transforms until he is barely recognizable. Like Icarus, whose father told him not to fly too close to the sun because his wings were made of wax, Stan was given many warnings to restrain his ambitions and greed. He saw the danger all around him, but like Icarus, Stan would follow his personally chosen path and would have to live with the consequences. Morality tale, horror story, Nightmare Alley was ahead of its time, but in the end, the story is timeless.

Brandy Isadora is a photojournalist. Her first book, Tattle Tales: Tattoo Stories and Portraits, will be released in the fall of 2019.