Nightmare Alley: Faustian Carnival Noir: The rise and fall: From Divinity to Geek

The Hanged Man XII or Dying God – this figure is Osiris or Christ and shows redemption through suffering. He is drowned in the waters of affliction.

Interview with Colleen Gray about the film

Nightmare Alley, (1947) Directed by Edmund Goulding is one of the more moody, nightmarish and sophisticated Noir films of it’s time. Goulding’s direction works like an expose of the seedier aspects of carnival life, threaded with romance, both surreal and unseemly. Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s book and scripted by Jules Furthman (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep), the film is a grim and somber look inside the lives of carnival folk and the demons who ride their backs with drug and alcohol abuse, which breeds inhumanity and the nadir that people are capable of reaching. This beautiful nightmare is both picturesque and polluted, yet a story that is cathartic, much like the journey in Sullivan’s Travels.

I’ve been writing a series called Women in Peril, and in order to make the distinction clear here, while the central character Stanton Carlisle is the film’s charismatic Anti-Hero, the main character who thrusts the films narrative forward are the two strong female leads. Stanton is portrayed by Tyrone Power’s in perhaps one of the most enigmatic performances of his career; an amoral misanthrope who’s inherent skill is to prey on the vulnerability of peoples’ weakness.

The film’s two women have a crucial interdependence on Stanton. They are the satellite archetypes of women who while not in threat of bodily harm, their danger lies more in the betrayal of their trust. The exploitation of their kindness and their willingness to reflect some credence to Stanton’s character that is apparently lacking in his nature.

This is perhaps one of the most powerful films I’ve seen in a while. It quite reminds me a bit of Sullivan’s Travel’s in that it’s a story of a person who loses their way, down a dark corridor where humanity has no place to radiate it’s light, and yet at the end of the journey, there is humanity once again. It’s a story of devouring power and the leap into the pit of perdition in order to find redemption.

Mademoiselle Zeena, played by the earthy Joan Blondell is seduced by a charming carnival barker, con-man, born mentalist, into teaching him the secret of “The Blind Fold Code” a word code that helps mentalists work a crowd of people who submit questions for the “Mentalist” to answer. This was once a very lucrative stunt that Zeena and husband Pete (Ian Keith) used, which was worth it’s weight in gold.

Zeena is the catalyst, the unwitting Mephistopheles to Stanton’s Faust, the word code like the Faustian contract that Stanton signs his soul away for. His one way ticket to obtaining real dominance. His appetite for power fueled by a Protean greed.To be a bona fide Mentalist, in high society , to tap into the profitable Spook Trade. Yet more like an Evangelist, a prophet helping ease people’s crisis of faith, and grief, while turning a profit by his deeds.

Zeena, is also a Circe or Hecate like figure in her obedience to the art of Tarot, and that her visions bode very dark forces ahead for Stanton. She is a tragic figure because she has fallen under Stanton’s influence and yet also the noble and devoted care taker to her husband Pete who’s drinking overshadows their career and their marriage. She is a woman trapped by her superstitions and her reverence to the arcane mysteries of life.She’s also a woman driven by her devotions. She’s got a heart as big as an artichoke, a leaf for everyone.

The opening scene we behold The Miracle Woman Zeena, standing on the platform by her tent, like a Greek goddess, a soothsayer, weary with visions of things that have played out in her life. Circumstances the Tarot Cards have foretold, that she is driven by the past winds of fate to observe. Zeena unlike women in peril who might be hunted by an assailant in human form, is at the mercy of her willing subjugation to her plight, and the sacrifices she’s made in life as caretaker and witness.

Molly (played by Coleen Gray) is the sweet young girl in the carny act billed as the Electro Girl who sports a galvanic bra which can withstand electrical shocks so she doesn’t get fried in her seat. Letting the arc of electricity flow between her hands is a wonderful scene in the film. It gives Molly her almost fairy like quality. The mirror with which to reflect what ever decency might still be inherently shrouded in Stanton’s dark heart. She can only see his beauty and his passion for working the crowd and his gift for showmanship. She doesn’t understand his ruthless nature, or that he is exploiting her affections. Molly is in danger of being manipulated by Stanton who plunges into marrying Molly for the purpose of using her in his new act. Her face almost lit like an icon of a Roman painted angel, cannot see the wheels turning in Stanton’s eyes when he talks about them being together. Their need for each other existing on two separate plains divulged in the way the scenes frame the actors expressions simultaneously in one shot.

Stanton is fascinated by The Geek in the sideshow. This is the carnival’s biggest draw, but a subversive illegal attraction that even some performers won’t work if a show carries such an attraction. But Stanton is fixated on him. “How do you get a guy to be a Geek, is he born that way?” It’s an unsettling foreshadowing of events. “I can’t understand how can get so low” we can hear the live chickens squawking as they are being fed to The Geek. It’s a disturbing effect.

Stanton, thrives on the energy of the carnival “I like it, it gets me to see those yokels out there gives you a superior feeling, as if YOU were in the know and they were on the outside looking in.” We see Stanton’s as Egoist, his ruthless narcissism to take over, to be omnipotent.

Stanton first starts working on Zeena’s affections in order to procure the secret code. She doesn’t want to hurt Pete. But she is taken in by Stanton’s seductions. If the new act works, she could make enough money to get Pete “the cure”. “Oh Stan do you think I could make the big time again?” Her arm stretched out leaning on a pole, he kisses the soft insides where her arm bends. She is torn between enabling Pete and being seduced by the lustful advances of Stanton.

Stanton shows up later at Zeena’s hotel room where she has laid out the Tarot cards. He asks what she’s doing. “This is the Tarot, the oldest kind of cards in the world … whenever I have something to decide or don’t know which way to turn.” She tells him to cut the cards 3 times. “Look Stan that’s the Wheel of Fortune, Pete and I never had it this good!” Everything looks good for them in the reading, but there is no sign of Pete dead or alive. Zeena starts to panic. Stanton picks up a card that had fallen on the floor face down. Zeena is shaken, “It couldn’t be like that it’s too awful, it’s too crazy what have I done!”

She tells Stan to take his bags and get out, it’s all off. Stan asks what he’s done, she says “Nothing! but I can’t go against the cards.”

Nightmare Alley’s characters each have their own level of spiritual awareness, an intimate relationship with their own nature of worship. Zeena dabbles in the esoteric mystical aspects of religious superstitious of luck and curses, The Marshall who comes to shut the carnival down, has a very quiet reverence as a good christian man, Molly is the embodiment of moral purity, and Stanton sees himself wielding his own religion as a Nietzcsheqsue Uberman.

She shows Stanton Pete’s card. The Hanged Man, the recurring theme of the film. This again is the foreshadowing of what can happen when humanity is sacrificed for power. She tells Stan when a card falls face down on the floor, what ever is going to happen is going to happen fast and it’s never good. Stans says “that’s for the chumps, to fall for one of your own boob catchers” He’s so superior, so ruthless, he cannot even fathom that the warning might be credible. We do see shades of humanity in him at times, as Stanton asks ” I wonder why I’m like that, never thinking about anybody but myself.” Zeena asks if his folks dropped him on his head. “Yeah, they dropped me.” This gives us a little background, that we later learn he grew up in an orphanage where he became aware of the Gospel and it’s useful passages. They kiss, and Zeena is once again under his control.

A foggy night, crickets chanting, Zeena’s husband Pete, staggering in between the caravans of the carnival stumbles upon Stanton one night. Zeena has cut him off from his drinking. Pete has the dropsies. In the background we hear the Geek wailing, screaming ungodly screams. He’s got the heebie jeebies again.

Throughout the film’s darker scenes the usage of music by Cyril Mockeridge, with orchestral arrangements by Maurice Packh there are moments of a diabolical motif, again in keeping with the Faustian theme. Several waves of Glossolalia especially where the Geek runs amok on the carny grounds are simply gripping and mind altering.

Stanton gives Pete the bottle he’s stashed in the prop trunk and says here you need this more than me.Pete tells him “you’re a good kid Stan, you’re going places, nothing can keep you out of the big time, just like I used to have.” He reminisces about him and Zeena during their big time, when they had TOP BILLING. The Geek comes  stumbling near them singing an incoherent tune, “Poor guy” Stanton says. “If it weren’t for Zeena they’d be saying that about me, Poor Pete, Pete the Geek” He remembered that fellow when he’d first showed up at the carnival. He used to be plenty big time. “Mental Act?” “what difference does it make, old smoked meat now, just a bottle a day rum dumb and he thinks this job is heaven, as long as there’s a bottle a day and a dry place to sleep it off. There’s only one thing this stuff (bottle) will make you forget-how to forget.”

Pete jumps onto the platform, turns the grungy swinging overhead lamp on and begins his little soliloquy, his old spiel “Throughout the ages certain men have looked into the polished crystal (holds the bottle of liquor to his breast and gazes) and see, is it something about the quality of the crystal itself, or does the gazer merely use it to turn his own gaze inward” now holding his hands to his temples as if to gleaning visions” in a seriously, sage like tone, as if giving a sermon (again the comparative to religion).

“Who knows , but visions come, slowly shifting their form, visions come, WAIT! the shifting shapes, begin to clear.” He begins to describe fields of rollings hills to Stanton, a young barefooted boy and a dog. Stanton caught up in Pete’s oration begins to tell him, ” His name is Jim, go on” Pete breaks from his trance and begins to laugh sardonically, “see how easy it is to hook em!” he cackles. “Stock reading, fits everybody. Every boy has a dog”, as he laughs. But Pete’s demonstration deepens Stanton’s hunger to obtain the ability to entrance and overpower people by persuasion and elocution. To divine people’s souls by reading their body language. To Stanton this is a form of religion. To be a holy man of the mental act. An art form, a business and again, spiritual rescue to those who are in crisis of faith for a price.

That night, Stanton unknowingly slips Pete a bottle of wood alcohol that Zeena uses to burn the papers of written questions from the audience. Stanton accidentally reaches into the prop trunk and grabs the wrong bottle. The bottle that Pete had been drinking that night. He dies and leaves Zeena to renew the act with Stanton as her partner working the crowd. But the guilt that starts to build up in Stanton’s psyche haunts him, and eventually becomes his ruination. While climbing to the top in society being billed at a Chicago nightclub as a Mentalist who is attracting a lot of attention.

Zeena shows up at Stanton and Molly’s hotel for a surprise visit. Again she lays out the Tarot cards “You’re going to the top, like a skyrocket” The one card face down is The Hanged Man, Pete’s card. This rattles Stanton. Molly believes it and Zeena warns Stanton not to take the act in the direction he is thinking. He calls Zeena and Bruno carnival freaks and tells them to get out. But Zeena comes back having forgotten her Tarot deck. Again, Zeena finds The Hanged Man face down on the floor. We hear the music glossolalia again, the disturbing voices resurrected in the back drop. Later,Stan goes to get a massage and when the masseuse puts alcohol on Stans skin to close his pores, it brings forth a TOTAL RECALL of his guilt. The night he inadvertently switched the bottles of alcohol that killed Pete, which he benefited from because it created his opportunity to use “the code” and rise to the top.

At the nightclub in Chicago, in the audience one night a woman, Dr Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) a cunning psychoanalyst, challenges Stanton. He goes to see her at his office and a new unholy relationship is forged. Not based on sexuality but the mutual bond of greed and opportunistic paranoia. She is the femme fatale of this noir film. She records all her patients sessions and Stanton wants to be able to use that information to his advantage, by having inside details of people’s lives that he can use in his Mentalist act. The name Lilith again is an interesting element. Lilith in Hebrew mythology is related to a class of female demon. When Stanton accuses her of secretly recording her patient’s sessions she espouses “Anything my patients reveal is as sacred as if given under the seal of the confessional.” Again references to religious structure. And the twisted bond they forge from this point on is based on “it takes one, to catch one.”

Ritter gives Stanton secret information about a wealthy patient of hers. Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes). Stan sees it as “An absolute blown in the glass clincher” Stan doesn’t see this skeptic as a challenge because his ego is so poised that he is certain he can con this old man into believing that he can manifest the spirit of his long dead love Dory. Using his command of the Gospel, Ezra a man who obviously struggles with religion, is told to “prepare himself more with prayer and good works” Like giving Stanton enough money for his own radio station and tabernacle.

Trying to use Molly as an accomplice to dupe the very wealthy man out of a fortune Molly threatens to leave Stan. He manipulates her love for him by telling her “What should I do, should I let the man’s soul be lost forever, or should I stake my own to save it!” It is this brilliant subterfuge that convinces Molly to stand by him for this ruse. She is so bound by her blindness, that she follows Stanton a bit further.

From here on in, Stanton begins his descent down the darkened pit, where he losses his identity but in the end finds redemption. To rise so high, is to fall to the lowest depths.

William Lindsay Gresham discusses his creative angst researching Nightmare Alley, as backdrop to his own movement toward faith. Here it’s cited his discovery of Tarot:

During my analysis I had a brief period of prosperity: I managed to write a novel, savage, violent, and neurotic, which made money. Yet with a temporary release from financial worries, my own inner nightmare grew worse. It was not true, then, that men live by bread alone? (Source)

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