Nightmare Alley (1947)

nightmare alley review

Nightmare Alley (1947) Directed by Edmund Goulding

Not the best or the most elegantly complex of the post-war American noirs but certainly the most barbaric of them all and the most paradigmatic of the pessimistic aura that symbolized post-1945 film noir. Directed by the sophisticated Edmund Goulding, this relentlessly sinister 1947 film based on Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name delves into the most sordid ambitions and heartless deeds of none other than one of the most maliciously cunning characters American film noir has ever seen.

The tough and handsome Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a smooth-talking, talented liar, skilled in sophistry and mellifluous persuasions, works in a cheap traveling carnival in which he has a basic, simple assistant’s role. However, his voracious appetite for success and his vicious greed added to his clever verbiage make him rise as one of the great and most acclaimed clairvoyants. With deceitful tricks and extreme negligence, he takes advantage of people’s naivety and their sorrows to extract the maximum juice from it and thus earn substantial amounts of money based on his Machiavellian demagogy and the woes of his clients. This unspeakably cruel and tragically poetic character is played with robust attitude and haunting magnetism by Tyrone Power, one of the most fascinating characters of American film noir, so seductively compelling that even we fall for his manipulative charms.

In his nefarious activities, Stan is accompanied by his jovially attractive wife played by a lovely Coleen Gray, who is far too decorous and merciful for her husband’s shameless inhumanity. For that very reason, Stan finds it necessary to make the most of a spontaneous encounter with a deceitful psychologist, with whom they share many vile similarities and decide to become partners in the systematic business of deception. Designed entirely with a compositional system that densifies the cinematic language into a terrifying tragic tale where premonitions are announced in shadows and screams, squalid scenarios and full of asymmetrical shadows; each piece is in place to condemn the main character in his own hell, one that he himself engenders with his ruthless irreversible decisions.

Director Edmund Goulding is an expert in luminous and aesthetically graceful melodramas, yet here he works in an entirely anomalous territory for his mannerisms and yet manages to filmically materialize one of the coldest and most miserabilistic film noir scenarios, a carnivalesque nightmare that is narrated as a religious parable. Nightmare Alley leaves no room for redemption, it is fiercely karmic.

Matteo Bedon
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When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.