Marlene Dietrich & Anna May Wong: Shanghai Express (1932) The Merciful Temptress or Veils on a Train & The Quiet Cultural Warrior or Mythos of the Dragon Lady With a Dagger

‘’Dietrich is something that never existed before and may never exist again. That’s a woman.” -Maurice Chevalier

”A shaft of white light used properly can be far more effective than all the color in the world used indiscriminately.” 
– Josef von Sternberg – Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1988)

For a century the divine Marlene Dietrich in her enigmatic work in cinema has been a radiant star of the silver screen. A torch singer, Sphynx-like, a seductress in a world where her mystique remains intangible and beyond adequate description. A torch songstress – she was the quintessential cabaret entertainer of Weimar-era Germany. Dietrich began her cabaret performances in 1954, which lasted two decades.

Marlene Dietrich has a world-weary appeal, the goddess of reflexive poise, self-possessiveness, an inscrutable aura of boundless insight, and a sort of subdued confidence. Next to Bette Davis, Dietrich has stirred a fascination in me – maybe it’s her indescribable physicality, the orb of dancing light across her smile. She’s an elusive divinity.

And through her alluring glamour and fluid sexuality, she became an international symbol, a timeless, enchanting muse, whose elegance and allure mesmerized both men and women alike. Her sensuality is daring, she held aloft her humor with courageous ease, and her inimitable style and aspect, are timeless.

Dietrich started as a cabaret performer and worked as a silent film actress at the height of the Weimar years, after which she abandoned Berlin at the dawn of the 1930s and headed for Hollywood with off-screen lover and director Josef von Sternberg.

In the late 1920s, Dietrich gained prominence on the German stage, drawing comparisons to Greta Garbo in the German press. In early 1930, director Josef von Sternberg came to Berlin to shoot The Blue Angel. He’d been searching for an actress who could ‘’exude the electric eroticism of the movie’s cruel temptress.’’ (Peter B. Fling NY Times 1992). Once he saw Dietrich on stage he found his purely malevolent Lola Lola who corrupts, demeans, humiliates, and ultimately destroys Emil Jennings cast as the bewitched well-respected elderly professor. The role won her a Hollywood contract, and with her collaboration with von Sternberg, a legend emerged.

(Eingeschränkte Rechte für bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) Marlene Dietrich (left) as ‘Lola-Lola’ and Rosa Valetti (centre) in the UFA – movie ‘Der Blaue Engel’ (‘The Blue Angel’). Director: Josef von Sternberg – 1930 Also available in color: Image Number 622600 (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Dietrich’s characters function both as objects of desire (her face drinks in light like a Brancusi sculpture) and agents of desire, in the grip of consuming, concentrated loves that frequently demand pain or martyrdom. Von Sternberg places this complex figure into many different contexts, from street prostitute (“Dishonored”) to absolute monarch (“The Scarlet Empress”). He even tries, with mixed success, to imagine her as an ordinary, middle-class wife and mother (“Blonde Venus”). (David Kehr NY Times 2012 article The Well-Lighted Agent of Desire)

Dietrich and von Sternberg ‘’embarked on a mad experiment to push photographing well to the furthest limits of the possible … Who cast her as angel and devil – amoral blithely destructive – detected a lustrous vitality beneath this mask of restraint- and she was, in fact, fiercely ambitious – but the pose of not giving a damn, which she made challenging and seductive was what he wanted.’’ – (Imogen Sara Smith)

From Dietrich – flowed the look of delirious eroticism, an inscrutable quintessence as she became a golden-haired blonde, her face framed by lighting and makeup that made her arched brows, cheekbones, and mesmeric blue eyes aristocratic, a persona so richly textured as the roles she embodied: a siren, victim, predator, or lover.

In her role in Morocco in 1930 she adopted male attire which was used to indicate sexual experience. (Source: Catherine Constable -Thinking in Images: Film Theory, Feminist Philosophy and Marlene Dietrich).

Not merely provocative -Dietrich’s transcends gendered attire, extending beyond donning men’s clothing or bestowing a kiss upon a woman’s surprised lips in the crowd, prompting startled, bashful laughter. She effortlessly appropriates other attributes typically reserved for men: their privilege, self-assuredness, sexual dominance, and emotional detachment. What truly distinguishes her, even more than her nonchalant mastery of her role and her blithe signals, is her unmistakable air of indifference.

‘’Aloof and calm, she continues her meticulous preparations: dusting off and donning a top hat, straightening her tie, slipping into a tailcoat. She strolls onstage and surveys the jeering audience inscrutably through a scrim of cigarette smoke, from under eyelids dragged down by the weight of knowingness and thick, curling eyelashes. The close-ups is killing in its beauty.’’ – Imogen Sara Smith – Morocco (1930)

The Dietrich persona, embodied by the aphrodisiacal Lola-Lola, the iconic cabaret songstress invested in a rakish top hat and sheer silk stockings in The Blue Angel in 1930, was a reflection of a non-conformist, an unrestrained libertine who picked her lovers, made her way in the world financially, and regarded sexuality as an intriguing pursuit of pleasure. Up on the screen, Dietrich personified the audience’s wish fulfillment.

‘’In emotional scenes, she often has a look of blank shock and numbness, sometimes with a fleeting wildness in her dry eyes – the look of someone who cannot lose control, who freezes up in the face of strong feeling. It is a limitation used to best advantage, make her seem inaccessible rather than inadequate.’’ (Imogen Sara Smith)

Critic Kenneth Tynan described Lola Lola’s self-expression as “a serpentine lasso whereby her voice casually winds itself around our most vulnerable fantasies… She has sex but no positive gender. Her masculinity appeals to women and her sexuality to men.”

She was a fashion trendsetter on screen and in her personal life, often dressed in tailored trousers and mannish attire. The actress pioneered the “Dietrich silhouette,” demonstrating that women could maintain their femininity while wearing masculine clothing that still highlighted a slender figure with subtle hips and bust line.

Dietrich herself manifested an individualist charisma in her personal and public persona as with many of her earlier roles, Mademoiselle Amy Jolly in Morocco 1930, Marie Kolverer -(X27) in Dishonored 1931, Helen Faraday in Blonde Venus 1932, and the corrupting vamp Concha Perez in The Devil is a Woman 1935 which was her particular favorite.

von Sternberg & Dietrich –Blonde Venus 1932

“The cool, bright face that didn’t ask for anything, that simply existed, waiting — it was an empty face, he thought; a face that could change with any wind of expression. One could dream of anything. It was like a beautiful empty house waiting for carpets and pictures. It had all possibilities — it could become a palace or a brothel.” (Erich Maria Remarque).

Eventually, the top executives at Paramount wanted to maintain the box office attraction of their big investment in Dietrich and blocked von Sternberg from directing her in any other pictures. He was losing money for them with his opulent storylines that were growing more self-indulgent and the narratives anemic. They cast her in two successful romantic comedies, her first Desire (1936) with Gary Cooper as her leading man. Then a satirical western Destry Rides Again in 1939 where Dietrich plays a free-spirited fireball who sings in a saloon and seduces Sheriff James Stewart. There’s a raucous scene that features a hair-pulling, face-slapping brawl between Dietrich and Una Merkel.

Some of her more well-known films include – As a German Noblewoman in von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress in 1934, The Garden of Allah in 1936, as Lady Maria Barker in Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel in 1937, As Bijou the saloon singer in Tay Garnett’s Seven Sinners in 1940, as the saloon owner Cherry Malotte in The Spoilers in 1942, she played a glamorous gypsy in Mitchell Leisen’s Golden Earrings in 1947, as a manipulative Berlin cabaret singer in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair 1948, as a conniving murderess in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright in 1950. As a saloon manager hiding outlaws in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious in 1952, as a duplicitous wife in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution in 1957, as the cynical madame of a brothel in Orson Welle’s Touch of Evil in 1958, and as an aristocratic widow in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961. Her last picture was in 1978 – she played Baroness von Semering alongside David Bowie in Just a Gigolo.

‘’Touch of Evil provided Miss Dietrich with one of her most memorable lines. She admonished the character played by the corpulent Welles to “lay off the candy bars.” (Peter B. Flint New York Times 1992)

During WWII she became a symbol of free Germany, outspoken against Hitler, financed the escape of many people from Nazi occupation, and entertained Allied troops and prisoners of war. ‘’Tirelessly and good-humoredly, she roughed it with the G.I.’s, standing patiently in food lines, washing with snow, and sleeping in dugouts and ruins, often near the front lines. She sang her movie songs, the international wartime ballad “Lili Marlene” and some current songs, and even played a musical saw, a skill she had mastered for the Berlin stage.’’ (Peter B. Flint New York Times 1992)

The troops fell in love with her. How could they not? After the war, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the United States Government bestows. France named her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and Belgium dubbed her a Knight of the Order of Leopold.

After 5 decades on stage, film, television, and lilting torch songs in cabarets, Dietrich died in 1992 at the age of 90 at her flat in Paris.

The inscrutable Anna May Wong, the pioneering Chinese-American actress, was born in 1905 above her family’s Chinese laundry in Los Angeles, Wong quickly developed a passion for the world of cinema. From a young age, she earned a reputation as the ‘curious Chinese child’ who would frequently visit film sets in Chinatown. At the age of 17, Wong seized her debut leading role in the silent film “Toll of the Sea” in 1922. Throughout her career, Wong encountered obstacles and racial discrimination. Not only were roles limited due to the film industry’s decision to primarily cast Western actors in leading Asian roles, but Hollywood and the Hays Code had very harsh rules against miscegenation, which restricted her from any on-screen kisses with non-Asian actors, even if that actor was portraying an Asian character. Further limiting her career was the desire producers had to cast Western actors in leading Asian roles.

In Shanghai Express, Wong’s performance as Hui Fei was vivified with dignity and primacy which challenged the pervasive stereotypes and expectations Hollywood had of Asian actresses during the 1930s.

At the beginning of her career, the Chinese press with the addition of the Nationalist government had been critical of Anna May Wong for her on-screen sexuality that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Chinese women.

On the screen goddess Anna May Wong was fond of saying, that she died a thousand deaths.

In Tiger Bay she sacrifices her life – as Lui Wong she stabs her wrist with a poisoned ring. Dying, she whispers an ancient Chinese poem. As Shosho the London flapper and ”Chinese Dancing Wonder,” was shot in the chest by a jealous suitor, she appeared as Taou Yuen, in Java Head 1934 an exquisite Qing Dynasty princess transported to cold grey Victorian Bristol, she indulges in opium while wearing spectacular Peking Opera costume and reviled by high society and righteous members of the church -Taou Yuen’s grace and decency are ignored, and as Wong dignity rises above the dialogue the film is riddled with contradictions. With the cast of characters condemning her “barbaric” rites, the undertone is that Chinese culture is like a dangerous drug like opium which provokes the senses and awakens forbidden desires.

As Lotus Flower in The Toll of the Sea (1922) Wong plays an innocent Hong Kong girl abandoned by her unambitious American lover, she throws herself into the provoking sea.

As Shosho, it was her erotic triumph in 1929 British silent ‘Picadilly’ directed by E. A. Dupont – set in the backdrop of London, she outshines Gilda Gray, known as the “Queen of Shimmy,” in her role as Shosho, the scullery maid who captures the affection of a nightclub owner who happens to be Gilda’s lover. She becomes an overnight sensation when he puts her on stage.

Perhaps it had something to do with her costume — a scanty, gilded interpretation of a vaguely Indonesian warrior outfit, purchased (at Shosho’s insistence) in Limehouse, London’s Chinatown. More likely it’s Wong’s intensity, toughness, and vibrant sensuality, showcased in a film that played off the fears and temptations of miscegenation. (From The Dragon Lady and the Quiet Cultural Warrior By Leslie Camhi New York Times article 2004)

Wong’s big break came a year later when Hollywood’s jeweled prince Douglas Fairbanks cast her in his over-the-top Orientalist pageant The Thief of Baghdad in 1924.

The Mongol slave girl, attired in a revealing bikini, turns traitor to her mistress—a Persian princess and the object of Fairbanks’s affection—by acting as a spy for a Mongol prince. Wong’s outrageous scene-stealing moment comes when she tremors and writhes as Fairbanks’s knife takes away her last breath.

That epic picture made Wong an international star, but it was not enough to deliver her from supportive roles that added to her ‘Oriental intrigue’ and ‘local color’ while white actors were made up in ‘yellowface’ like Warner Oland who starred in the Charlie Chan detective series, were routinely cast as Asians. In addition to being relegated to cultural caricatures, the taboos of mixed-raced romance kept Wong from taking on the lead role if she couldn’t kiss her co-star. As a seductress, she was doomed to certain death. Her faithless servants, gangsters’ molls, and formidable dragon ladies — in the Hollywood parts that awaited her— she often met unfortunate ends.

“I was tired of the parts I had to play… Why should we always scheme, kill, (and) rob?”

In the casting of the film The Good Earth based on Pearl S. Buck’s popular novel, Wong deeply wanted to play the lead role of Olan and fought hard to be cast in the part but was passed over for German actress Luise Rainer. Most insulting, she was offered the part of an unsympathetic character in the film, which she refused. “If you let me play O-lan, I will be very glad. But you’re asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”

Anna May Wong’s sophistication, both in front of the camera and in her personal life, was a captivating blend of traditional Chinese dress and the glamorous fashion of 1930s Hollywood. Wong dedicated herself to infusing authenticity into even her most minor roles by meticulously incorporating genuine Chinese hairstyles and costumes, which she often used from her own collection.

Though her elegance and allure and pursuit of authenticity are undeniable, Wong’s characters could still be seen as the embodiment of the racist stereotypes perpetuated by a studio system that struggled to envision and articulate positive roles for Asian actors. She wishes to break the bonds of the Dragon Lady trope.

Publicity stills from Limehouse Blues (1934)

On January 14, 1932, a Chinese newspaper ran with the headline “Paramount Utilizes Anna May Wong to Produce Picture to Disgrace China.

“Her specialty is to expose the conduct of the very low caste of Chinese,” the editorial ran on, citing her turn as “a half-robed Chinese maid in The Thief of Bagdad [sic]. Although she is deficient in artistic portrayal, she has done more than enough to disgrace the Chinese race.”

In Shanghai Express, Anna May Wong gives an enigmatic performance as Hui Fei, the elliptical warrior who brings an extra layer of agency and nuance to the film as her character converges with Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily. Hui Fei is acute, resourceful, and instrumental in the prevailing plot line.

Wong’s portrayal of Hui Fei is a marked departure from the conventional exoticized and orientalization of surrendering girls she was more often confined to by Hollywood during the era.

Anna May Wong at Hollywood’s Music Box Theater for the opening of The Old Woman 1933.

As Hui Fei, Wong manifests ‘’an inordinately graceful Confucian courtesan with nerves of steel (and traveling companion to Marlene Dietrich’s notorious prostitute Shanghai Lily), who disappears from a crowded train platform amid the flashes of news photographers after collecting her reward for murdering a brutal Chinese warlord… Wong’s presence in “Shanghai Express” can be seen as a counterpoint to Marlene Dietrich’s character. While Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily is an embodiment of Western allure and independence, Wong’s Hui Fei represents a more complex portrayal of an Asian woman navigating her own path in a racially charged and patriarchal world. This contrast between the two actresses and their characters adds depth to the film and highlights the intersectionality of their struggles in the film industry.’’ -(Leslie Camhi The Dragon Lady and the Cultural Warrior -New York Times article 2004)

During the 1930s the radically individualistic Wong traveled between Europe and Hollywood and in 1936 she embarked on a year’s stay in her spiritual homeland China, in search of a better way to represent Chinese women in her work, where she had been subjected to roles as women of little morality who live by the flesh.

Like numerous actors from her era, Wong concluded her career in the emerging realm of television. She briefly took on a role in “The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong,” portraying a Chinese art dealer and detective entangled in the subterfuge of the international art world. Her ultimate promotional photograph, captured during her appearance in “Portrait in Black” (1960), a film she hoped would ignite her career once more, features her as a maid, caressing a Siamese cat. She died a year after the film’s release.

Continue reading “Marlene Dietrich & Anna May Wong: Shanghai Express (1932) The Merciful Temptress or Veils on a Train & The Quiet Cultural Warrior or Mythos of the Dragon Lady With a Dagger”

Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Robert Ryan’s death July 11, 1973 with a special nod to Karen & The Dark Pages for their spectacular tribute to this incredibly real man!

robert ryan

“Ryan was unfailingly powerful, investing his tormented characters with a brooding intensity that suggests coiled depth. Cut off from the world by the strength of their ‘feelings’ his characters seem to be in the grip of torrential inner forces. They are true loners. Ryan’s work has none of the masked, stylized aura of much noir acting. He performs with emotional fullness that creates substantial, complex characters rather than icons.”Foster Hirsch-FILM NOIR: The Darker Side of the Screen

Clearly Robert Ryan’s infinite presence in film and his numerous complex characters manifest an embracing universal ‘internal conflict’ of masculinity. I tribute certain roles the actor inhabited during his striking career. Though he was cast more often in the part as the imposing heavy, the depth and breadth of Ryan’s skill with his rough-hewn good looks should have landed him more roles as a lead male capable of such penetrating levels of emotion. He had a depth that suggests a scarcely hidden intensity smoldering at the surface.

Robert Ryan as Montgomery in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire 1947.
Act of Violence Ryan
Robert Ryan in Act of Violence ’48

A critic for the New York Times reviewing  Act of Violence (1948)  wrote about Robert Ryan’s persona as the madly driven veteran bent on revenge, Joe Parkson calling him “infernally taut.”

Frank Krutnik discusses ‘Masculinity and its discontents’ in his book In A Lonely Street, “In order to make the representation of masculinity in the noir thriller, there follows a schematic run-through of Freudian work on the determination of masculine identity.” Claiming Freud’s work can be co-opted into film with an emphasis of its relevance to analysis of the cultural machinery of patriarchy.” He discusses patriarchal culture which relies heavily on the maintenance of a gender-structured ‘disequilibrium’ with its roots in the myth of the Oedipal Complex. Involving not only the power-based hierarchy of male service to masculine power but the established normative gender values which inform both the male and female figure.

act of violence ryan and leigh
Act of Violence Robert Ryan as Joe Parkson co-starring Janet Leigh

Many of the characters in Ryan’s noir world are informed by a cultural ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness and strips the limits of desire as an obligation to masculine identity. The patriarchal power structure predetermines a fixed and limited role that creates a destiny of submission and impotence in Ryan’s characters. But within the framework of these extreme male figures lies an intricate conflict of varying degrees of vulnerability and fragility.

Ryan manifests this duality within hyper-masculine characters. Outwardly physical, confrontational, and hostile, Ryan is a master at playing with men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth. He was never just a dark noir brute or anti-hero but a complex man actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. His performances suggest a friction of subjugated masculinity bubbling within.

Ryan and Stanwyck in Clash By Nightjpg
Ryan as Earl Pfeiffer and Barbara Stanwyck in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night.

The trajectory of the male through the Oedipus Complex encompasses male subjectivity which is a principal issue in the noir ‘tough-thriller.’ The ‘existential thematic’ link to the Oedipus myth concerns questions of male desire and identity as they relate to the overarching law of existing patriarchal culture substituted for the original fearsome ‘divinity.’ This element is one of the driving psychological themes underlying any good classic film noir.

In this post, I put my focus primarily on Ryan’s characters within the framework of each film and while I discuss the relationship between him and the central players I do not go as in-depth as I usually do discussing his co-stars or plot design.

I apply this thematic representation to many of the roles engendered in the films of Robert Ryans‘ that I’ve chosen to discuss here. A patriarchal power structure establishes the tragedy of man’s destiny, a fixed and limited role in the character’s own destiny as there is a predominant power that threatens them into submission and sheds light on their own impotence. So many of the noir characters in a Robert Ryan noir world are shaped by a cultural authority structured through ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness in the male identity that strips away the limits of desire, as an obligation to ‘masculine identity.’

Ryan’s stoic boxer Stoker in Robert Wise’s The Set Up.

I’m focusing on particular Ryan’s roles within a noir context that depict archetypal hyper-masculine tropes and the problematic strife within those characters. Whether Ryan is playing the deeply flawed hero or the tormented noir misfit, his characters are afflicted with an inherent duality of virility and vulnerability, inner turmoil, alienation, persecution, and masochism. It’s a territorial burden that Robert Ryan so effortlessly explores.

These films show Ryan’s trajectory through forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Within a noir landscape, the schism of stark virility and tenuous masculinity exposes the complexity of alienation, masochism, and frailty. Robert Ryan’s performances are a uniquely fierce and formidable power.

I’m discussing: The Woman On the Beach (1947) haunted & emasculated coastguardsman Lt. Scott Burnett, Caught (1949) neurotic millionaire Smith Ohlrig, The Set-Up (1949) noble over-the-hill boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson, Born To Be Bad (1950) misanthropic & masochistic novelist Nick Bradley, Clash by Night (1952) cynical misogynist projectionist Earl Pfeiffer, Beware, My Lovely (1952) morose psychotic vagrant handyman Howard Wilton, On Dangerous Ground (1952) unstable, alienated violent cop Jim Wilson, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) racist persecuted ex-con Earle Slater.

Within the framework of these ‘extreme’ male figures lies an intricate conflict with varying degrees of vulnerability & fragility within the male psyche. The narratives don’t necessarily flesh out this conflict plainly, but Ryan’s performances certainly suggest and inform us about the friction of this subjugated theme bubbling to the surface as he manifests the duality within his hyper-masculine characters. Robert Ryan was a master at playing men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth.

Robert Ryan

Ryan is never just a dark noir ‘brute’ or anti-hero but moreover, a complex male who is actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. A complexity of stark virility and ‘tenuous maleness’ as the narrative witnesses Ryan’s trajectory transforming him through various dynamic forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Outwardly physical, confrontational, hostile, and ultimately masculine, and the schism that is inwardly emotional, alienated, self-deprecating, masochistic, and fragile within the film noir landscape. Robert Ryan’s performances still maintain a uniquely fierce and formidable aesthetic of the ‘suffering-marginalized man.’

Continue reading “Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir”

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.














“The spook racket – I was made for it.”

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 sleazier 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 with ugly ideologies.

Cinematography by Lee Garmes, (Morocco 1930, Shanghai Express 1932, Scarface 1932, Duel in the Sun 1946, The Paradine Case 1947, The Captive City 1952, Lady in a Cage 1964) Music by Cyril J. Mockridge, and set direction by Thomas Little (Laura 1944, Day the Earth Stood Still 1951). Edited by Barbara McLean.(All About Eve 1950, No Way Out 1950, Niagara 1953).

The film stars Tyrone Power as Stanton Carlisle a ruthless con artist with no morals who stumbles onto a traveling carnival. Not only did Powers want to see Nightmare Alley made, but he also wanted the leading role to show 20th Century Fox that he was more than just a pretty face. It also stars Joan Blondell (one of my favorites and known for her wise-cracking sex appeal) as Zeena Krumbein, Colleen Gray (Kay in The Killing 1956) as Molly, Ian Keith in an intense role as alcoholic mentalist Pete Krumbein and Mike Mazurki as the strongman Bruno.

Nightmare Alley is an enthrallingly morbid fable about the rise and fall of a greedy, socio-pathic charlatan Stanton Carlisle (Power) who uses his good looks and skillful deception to work his way from traveling carnival barker to high society mentalist. First, he seduces Zeena (Joan Blondell) a gentle soothsayer, in order to obtain the key to her and her husband Pete’s (Ian Keith) mind-reading code. Stanton accidentally poisons Pete when he gives him a bottle of wood alcohol. He then moves on to romance Molly (Colleen Gray) the beautiful young girlfriend of the strongman Bruno (Mazurki). Stanton winds up marrying Molly, and the two leave the seedy carnival life for better pickings as successful nightclub mentalists, of course using the code he charmed out of Zeena. But even the nightclub act is not enough to satiate his desire for power. He meets Lilith (Helen Walker) an unscrupulous psychologist (the film’s coded lesbian and cunning femme fatale) who has access to her clients and can feed Stanton confidential details from her patients. The pair begin to blackmail their clients out of money. The ‘spook racket’ is an extremely profitable scheme, but his plans to build a spiritualist empire is at risk when Molly’s integrity overshadows Lilith’s avarice.

Stanton Carlisle is the film’s charismatic Anti-Hero, the central character who thrusts the film’s narrative forward though there are three very strong female leads. Stanton is portrayed by Tyrone Power in perhaps one of the most enigmatic performances of his career; an amoral misanthrope whose inherent skill is to prey on the vulnerability of people’s weakness.

The film’s two powerful and kind women have a crucial interdependence on Stanton. They are the ‘caregiver’ archetype of women, who while not in threat of bodily harm, their danger lies more in the betrayal of their trust. However, Helen Walker’s heinous psychiatrist who preys on the weakness of others is aptly named Lilith, the most ‘notorious demon’ in Hebrew mythology. Stanton exploits the opportunity that each woman offers up.

It’s a story of a immoral, ill-fated scoundrel who spirals down even farther, into a remote dark corridor where humanity has no place to radiate its light. It’s a story of devouring power and the leap into the pit of perdition with no sign of redemption. A truly nihilistic vision. Ultimately at the climax of Nightmare Alley, Stanton has fallen into the depths of the self-imposed freak show in purgatory.

Mademoiselle Zeena is portrayed by the earthy, gutsy Joan Blondell who is seduced by Stanton Carlisle, the charming carnival barker, con-man 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 her husband Pete (Ian Keith) used, which was worth its weight in gold.

Zeena is the catalyst, the unwitting Prophetess who gives away the word code to Stanton. A Faustian contract that ultimately seals his condemned fate. Stanton will sign his soul away for the secret. For him, it is a one-way ticket to obtaining a dark providence for the sake of a brief dance with power. His appetite is fueled by Protean greed to obtain more and more power and riches. He longs to be a bona fide Mentalist, in high society, not just a two-bit cheater in a fleabag carnival. He wants to tap into the profitable Spook Trade where there is more of a potential for wealth. Stanton sees himself becoming more like an Evangelist, a prophet helping ease people’s crisis of faith as well as their grief while turning a sizable profit.

Zeena is also a Circe or Hecate — a witch, a seer, like a figure seen in her obedience to the art of Tarot. And her visions see very dark forces ahead for Stanton. She is a tragic figure because she has fallen under Stanton’s alluring influence, yet she is a devoted caretaker to her husband Pete whose drinking has cast a shadow over their career and marriage. Zeena is a woman trapped by her superstitions and her reverence for the arcane mysteries of life. She’s also a woman driven by her devotion and desires.

Stanton Carlisle: You’ve got a heart as big…

Zeena Krumbein: Sure, as big as an artichoke, a leaf for everyone.

In 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 is at the mercy of her willing subjugation to her plight and the sacrifices she’s made in life as a caretaker and mystic 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 that can withstand electrical shocks so she doesn’t get fried in her seat. Letting the arc of electricity flow between her hands is a mesmerizing scene. It gives Molly her almost fairy-like quality. The mirror with which to reflect whatever 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 is almost lit like an icon of a painted Roman angel, cannot see the wheels turning in Stanton’s eyes when he talks about them being together.

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 there if a show carries such a grotesque feature. 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 effective use of background sound.

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 as an egoist with a ruthless narcissism to take over, be in control, 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 their lustful manipulations by Stanton.

Stanton Carlisle: What kind of deck is this?

Zeena Krumbein: This is the tarot. Oldest kind of cards in the world. Pete says the gypsies brought them out of Egypt. They’re a wonder for giving private readings.

Stanton Carlisle: I’d say. They look plenty weird.

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 superstitions 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.

Zeena shows Stanton Pete’s card. The Hanged Man is 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, whatever 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 don’t really see shades of humanity in him but a curiosity, 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, he grew up in an orphanage where he became aware of the Gospel that came with black and blue bruises and its useful passages he can avail himself of later. They kiss, and Zeena is once again under his charismatic control.

Molly: You ought to have heard Stan spout the gospel to that old hypocrite. It was like being in Sunday school.

Zeena Krumbein: You must have been raised pretty religious.

Stanton Carlisle: Yeah, in a county orphanage.

Molly: Didn’t you have any folks?

Stanton Carlisle: If I did, they weren’t much interested.

Zeena Krumbein: Where’d you learn all this gospel?

Stanton Carlisle: In the orphanage. That’s what they used to give us on Sunday after beating us black-and-blue all week. Then when I ran away, they threw me in the reform school. But that’s where I got wise to myself. I let the chaplain save me, and got a parole in no time. Boy, how I went for salvation! Comes in kind of handy when you’re in a jam.

On 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 underscores moments with 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 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.”

Pete Krumbein: Throughout the ages, man has sought to look behind the veil that hides him from tomorrow. And through the ages, certain men have looked into the polished crystal… and seen. Is it some quality of the crystal itself, or does the gazer merely use it to turn his gaze inward? Who knows? But visions come. Slowly shifting their forms… visions come. Wait. The shifting shapes begin to clear. I see fields of grass… rolling hills… and a boy. A boy is running barefoot through the hills. A dog is with him. A… DOG… is… with… him.

Stanton Carlisle: Yes… go on… his name was Jib. Go on!

Pete Krumbein: [Choked laughter] Humph. See how easy it is to *hook* ’em!

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 people by elocution and persuasion. 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, a spiritual rescuer to those who are in a crisis of faith — only… 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 for the crowd. But the guilt that starts to build up in Stanton’s psyche haunts him, and eventually becomes the spiraling down, the turn of his destiny and his ruination. While climbing to the top in society being billed at a Chicago nightclub as a Mentalist he 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 backdrop. Later, Stanton goes to get a massage and when the masseuse puts alcohol on Stan’s skin to close his pores, he thinks of Pete about the night he inadvertently switched the bottles of alcohol that killed Pete. The act 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, there is a woman, Dr Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) a cunning psychoanalyst, who challenges Stanton. He goes to see her at her 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 patient’s 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 demons. 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 the 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” To Stanton this translates into receiving 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. She agrees to play the ghost of Dora.

From here on in, Stanton begins his descent down the darkened pit, where he losses his wicked identity and transforms into a damned, lowly geek.

Stanton Carlisle: Listen to me, I’m no good. I never pretended to be. But, I love you. I’m a hustler. I’ve always been one. But, I love you. I may be the thief of the world, but, with you I’ve always been on the level.

McGraw – Final Carnival Owner: Wait. I just happened to think of something. I might have a job you can take a crack at. Course it isn’t much and I’m not begging you to take it, but it’s a job.

Stanton Carlisle: That‘s all I want.

McGraw – Final Carnival Owner: And we’ll keep you in coffee and cake. Bottle every day, place to sleep it off in. What do you say? Anyway, it’s only temporary, just until we can get a real geek.

Stanton Carlisle: Geek?

McGraw – Final Carnival Owner: You know what a geek is, don’t you?

Stanton Carlisle: Yeah. Sure, I… I know what a geek is.

McGraw – Final Carnival Owner: Do you think you can handle it?

Stanton Carlisle: Mister, I was made for it.

McGraw – Final Carnival Owner: Well, he certainly fooled me. I never recognized him. Stanton. Stanton the Great.

Roustabout at Final Carnival: How can a guy get so low?

McGraw – Final Carnival Owner: He reached too high. Good night, boys. Lock up.

Roustabout at Final Carnival: Good night.

William Lindsay Gresham discusses his creative angst researching Nightmare Alley, as a 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)