Quote of the Day! The Big Combo (1955) Mr. Brown: I’m gonna give you a break. I’m gonna fix it, so you don’t hear the bullets.

THE BIG COMBO (1955)

released Feb 5, 1955 by Allied Artists

Directed by Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy 1950, My Name is Julia Ross 1945 , So Dark the Night 1946) Screenplay by Philip Jordan, Director of photography John Alton who’s haunting chiaroscuro and noir figures in silhouette fill out the landscape of entrapment, corruption and decadence.

From Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror by Bruce Crowthers

In The Big Combo (1955)“Alton’s dazzling black and white photography starkly counterpoints the film’s perverse sexuality which constantly strains against the limitations of the Hollywood code. Whether exploring the sado-masochistic violence of the hoodlums, two of whom, Fante and Mingo are clearly homosexual or the psycho-sexual domination wielded by gang boss, Brown over the young woman from the right side of the tracks, the scripts and the director’s needs are continually and effectively fulfilled by Alton’s camera.”

Stars Cornel Wilde as Leonard Diamond, Jean Wallace (Jigsaw 1949, The Man on the Eiffel Tower 1950, Storm Fear 1955) as Susan Lowell, Brian Donlevy (The Glass Key 1942, Impact 1949, The Quatermass Xperiment 1955, A Cry in the Night 1956) as McClure, Richard Conte (The Blue Gardenia 1943, Cry of the City 1948, Thieves’ Highway 1949, Whirlpool 1949, Oceans 11 (1960), Tony Rome 1967, Lady in Cement 1968) as Mr. Brown, Lee Van Cleef as Fante and Earl Holliman as Mingo, Robert Middleton as Peterson, Helen Walker as Alicia, Jay Adler as Sam Hill, John Hoyt as Dreyer, Ted De Corsia as Bettini, Helene Stanton as Rita

Joseph H. Lewis   from Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia by Wheeler Winston Dixon-
Lewis abandoned westerns and began a “frenzied round of freelancing that took him from Poverty Row to the majors, with such films as the disquieting horror Universal film The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) and the astonishing Secrets of a Coed aka The Silent Witness 1942 for PRC.”

The Big Combo is considered a ‘syndicate’ film noir, where a mob organization is running the urban landscape, in which the organization is ‘all’ but with a difference. According to writer/historian Wheeler Winston Dixon, director Lewis was an “eccentric and he depicts a universe that is as out of kilter as his often imbalanced camera set-ups; the camera sweeps in on the protagonists in their most intimate moments, frames them as silhouettes in wide shots that effectively use fog and a few shadows to disguise the fact that seem to entrap his characters in even tighter compositions.”

Brown- “I’m gonna break him so fast he won’t have time to change his pants.Tell him the next time I see him, he’ll be in the lobby of the hotel, crying like a baby and asking for a ten dollar loan. Tell him that. And tell him I don’t break my word. Diamond –“You must have done something pretty fine to get as high as you are, Mr. Brown. I’m looking into that. I’m gonna open you up, and I’m gonna operate. I hate to think of what I’ll find.

At the police station, booked on a phony charge just to harass Brown. Joe McClure-“Mr. Brown is a very reasonable man. You don’t know him.” Leonard Diamond “Oh, is he? Well I’m not. I intend to make life very difficult for you Mr. Brown.”

Joe McClure-“You shouldn’t talk like that, Lieutenant. You’re overstepping your authority.” Mr. Brown-“Joe, the man has reason to hate me. His salary is $96.50 a week. The busboys in my hotel make better money than that. Don’t you see, Joe? He’s a righteous man.”

From FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF THE SCREEN BY FOSTER HIRSCH

“One of the eroding factors in the fifties thrillers surfaced in such films as the Big Combo and The Phenix City Story where crime no longer springs from the aberrant individual but is instead a corporate enterprise, run like a business. (Or like Murder Inc.) This view of crime is widespread, almost communal undertaking, counters the traditional noir interest in the isolated criminal whose actions are controlled not by an impersonal conglomerate but by a complex interweaving of character and fate.” Hirsch also points out that it represents another level of decadence.

From The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller-“This gray area between old-school hoodlum and the new “organization man” was fertile turf for noir fables…)… in The Big Combo the gangster picture is distilled into a sexual battle between the saturnine, sensual Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) and dogged but frustrated flatfoot Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) Both men covet the appetizing Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), whom Diamond has been stalking for months as part of his investigation of Brown’s illegal Combination.”

I have read that chiaroscuro is director Lewis’ domain and that he also liked to use icy blondes the way Alfred Hitchcock did. In Gun Crazy (1950) Lewis had Peggy Cummins, and in The Big Combo it is Jean Wallace, yet Lewis’ women are more overtly ‘sex-kittenish than high class blonde.- From Film Noir: An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward

Cornel Wilde does a blunt job playing a righteous cop, Leonard Diamond who will do anything to take down Mr. Brown who represents everything he detests in the world.

“I know his name. The name of a man who will pick up a phone and call Chicago and New Orleans and say “Hey Bill, Joe is coming down for the weekend. Advance him fifty thousand,” and he hangs up the phone and the money’s advanced, protection money. A new all night bar opens, with gambling outside city limits. A bunch of high school kids come in for a good time. They get loaded, they get irresponsible, they lose their shirts. Then they get a gun, cause they’re worried, they want to make up their losses. And a filling station attendant is dead with a bullet in his liver. I have to see four kids on trial for first degree murder. Look at it. First degree murder, because a certain Mr. Brown picked up a phone.”

Robert Middleton who happens to be one of my favorite underrated character actors plays Diamond’s boss, Police Lt.Peterson, who’s trying to convince Diamond not to pursue Brown through his girlfriend Susan Lowell and realizes that after tailing her for months, Diamond might have developed feelings for her. “You’re a cop, Leonard. There’s 17,000 laws on the books to be enforced. You haven’t got time to reform wayward girls. She’s been with Brown three and a half years. That’s a lot of days… and nights.”

Richard Conte is particularly more brutal as Mr. Brown than in some of his other portrayals of the embodiment of the crime aesthetic, possessing the essential flair of the well heeled mobster. The Big Combo is one of the most bleak and perverse of all the mid 1950s film noirs. The pace of the film leaves us hanging in a world of perpetual threat and vexation.

Richard Conte infuses the role of Mr. Brown with an unusual intensity even for the enduring tough-guy Conte as he plays a ruthless mob boss who practically holding a society girl Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) hostage by their odd attraction for each other. Susan has left a budding career as a pianist to be a trophy in Brown’s collections, seduced by his control, and the money he lavishes on her, yet ambivalent about her self-loathing and her attraction to his perverse power over her body and their sexual relationship. In a potent scene he takes Susan in a secret room in her apartment filled with a hidden stash of money and ammunition. Brown to Susan- “This is my bank… we don’t take checks, we deal strictly in cash. There isn’t anybody I’d trust with so much temptation–except myself. Or maybe you.”

Mr. Brown- “Where’d you get that outfit?”  Susan Lowell “What’s wrong with it?”  Mr. Brown-“I like you better in white. You’ve got a dozen white dresses. Why don’t you wear them? “ Susan Lowell-“White doesn’t please me anymore.” Mr. Brown –“A woman dresses for a man. You dress for me. Go put on something white!”

Brown employs his two exploitable goons Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) to stay close to Susan and watch her every move, acting as unwanted bodyguards.

Brown’s far-flung organization is under attack by the overzealous hard-boiled detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) who is determined to bring Brown to justice. All of Mr. Brown’s associates are figures marginalized by society in some way, all defined by their ‘difference.’ Brown gets his kicks pointing out what everyone else around him lacks while he pats himself on the back like a sadistic narcissist.

The film opens with Susan fleeing a boxing match, pursued by Mr. Brown’s two hired muscle heads, through dark alleys until she is finally caught by Brown, which only symbolizes his sexual dominance over her.

“It was for her I began to work my way up. All I had was guts. I traded them for money and influence. I get respect from everybody but her…”- Mr. Brown

Brown is so fixated on displays of dominance and strength that he fires his boxer after he loses his bout. First he uses the opportunity to belittle his deputy McClure (Brian Donlevy) in front of the young boxer then he smacks Benny across his swollen bloody face waiting for his retaliation, but when it’s obvious the boy won’t hit him back, he cuts him loose.

Brown talking to Benny after the bout- “So you lost. Next time you’ll win. I’ll show you how. Take a look at Joe McClure here. He used to be my boss, now I’m his. What’s the difference between me and him? We breathe the same air, sleep in the same hotel. He used to own it!”

[yelling into McClure’s sound magnifier that is in his ear]

“We eat the same steak, drink the same bourbon. Look–same manicure, cuff-links. But we don’t get the same girls. Why? Because women know the difference. They got instinct. First is first and second is nobody…  Now, Benny, who runs the world? Do you have any idea?” Bennie Smith “Not me, Mr. Brown.” Mr. Brown “That’s right, not you, but a funny thing, they’re not so much different from you, but they’ve got something. They’ve got it, and they use it. I’ve got it; [pointing to McClure] he hasn’t. What is it, Benny? What makes the difference…? Hate! Hate is the word, Benny! Hate the man that tries to beat you. Kill ’em, Benny! Kill ’em! Hate him till you see red, and you’ll come out winning the big money, and the girls will come tumblin’ after. You’ll have to shut off the phone and lock the door to get a night’s rest.”

Brown lectures Benny- “You should have hit me back. You haven’t got the hate. Tear up Benny’s contract. He’s no good to me anymore.” 

Brown cuts his fighter-Benny loose, telling him he just doesn’t have the killer instinct he needs. Brown is a narcissistic bully whose smooth philosophical meanderings taunt the people who work for him, women and even the cop who is right on his heels.

Brown’s two brawny side-kicks Fante and Mingo are obviously homosexual lovers, who thrive on violence as an enhancement to their sexual arousal like foreplay. Brown’s former boss, the weakened and inadequate McClure must rely on a clunky portable radio sized hearing aid in order to keep up with the gang’s activities.

Lt. Diamond goes after the psychotic megalomaniac Mr. Brown trying to shut down his crime organization. There is conflict already within the organization as Brown is demeaning to McClure and verbally bates him constantly with put downs, to try and get a rise out of him. McClure wants to get rid of Brown all together and take over as head of the mob once again, but in the end he is too impotent, to smack down Brown’s power.

Brown has a prized possession —his beautiful blonde girlfriend Susan who is watched over every minute of the day by his two thugs Fante and Mingo. When Susan finally has a breakdown and overdoses on sleeping pills as a way out, she finally asks Diamond for help.

Susan eventually attempts suicide by taking an overdose of pills, which puts her in Diamond’s path. Diamond himself is attracted to Susan. Believing that the only escape from her amoral relationship with Brown is to die, Diamond tries to pull her away from his control.

First Diamond wants to expose Brown’s criminal organization and secondly it would give him great satisfaction to take Susan away from Brown, as he also has developed feelings for her.

When Diamond harasses Brown by arresting him on false charges just to bring him into the station –he goes on a mission to persecute Brown, who retaliates as his credo is “First is first and second is nobody” Brown puts a contract out on Diamond, who is then kidnapped by his two vicious flunky’s Fante and Mingo who are in a surreptitious relationship, with each other Mingo showing his sexual attraction and love for Fante in a rather covert yet palpable way. Though toward the end, while they’re hiding out, he does make mention that he’s sick of Salami. A thought, make of it what you will!

In a shocking scene Fante and Mingo torture Diamond, it is particularly brutal and vicious as they use McClure’s hearing aid turned up to full volume amplifying sound to the point it could blow his ear drums out. The pain on Diamond’s face is tangible. Then they begin pouring alcohol down his throat poisoning him, leaving him to appear as if he’s been off on a bender, thank god his boss Peterson (Robert Middleton) is there to help Diamond recover.

Mr. Brown-“I think Mr. Diamond needs a drink. Got any liquor?” Fante-” How about some paint thinner?” Mr. Brown-“No, that’ll kill him. Anything else?” Fante- “Hair tonic, 40% alcohol.” Mr.Brown-“Fine.”

Once he recovers from his torture, Diamond is even more determined to bring Brown down. Diamond starts to put the pieces together and find clues that point to Brown’s involvement in the murder of a racket boss who disappeared a while ago, and whose place he took over in the organization. He discovers some of Brown’s old associates, Dreyer (John Hoyt) an Austrian who runs an antique and import business and Bettini (Ted De Corsia)a nice Italian man who owned a pizza parlor in the city and is now hiding out, fearing for his life.

Fante and Mingo go to Diamond’s hotel room intending to kill him, and wind up murdering his sometime lover night club singer Rita who went there to surprise him with a date, but becomes an unfortunate casualty being at the right place at the wrong time she is caught in the fray. Even Rita had laid things out for Diamond about the reasons why Susan would stay with a creep like Brown- “Women don’t care how a man makes his living, only how he makes love.”

After Diamond finds Rita’s body gunned down in his apartment- “She came to see me in her best shoes!” I treated her like a pair of gloves. I was cold… I called her up.”

Brown tries to school Diamond in the ways of the world, “You’d like to be me… You’d like to have my organization, my influence, my fix. You think it’s the money. It’s not–it’s personality. You haven’t got it. You’re a cop. Slow. Steady. Intelligent. With a bad temper and a gun under your arm. With a big yen for a girl you can’t have. First is first and second is nobody. 

Brown- “You’re a little man with a soft job and good pay. Stop thinking about what might have been and who knows–you may live to die in bed.”

Brown starts to get paranoid and panicky, getting rid of McClure who is a weak link in the mob, and then his two henchmen who know too much about his double dealings and can be linked to McClure’s murder. Adding to Brown’s worries, his ex-wife Alicia (Helen Walker) comes back into the picture after hiding out in a sanitarium aiding Diamond in Brown’s capture. Ultimately leading to a showdown at an airplane hangar where Diamond corners Brown. Alicia “I’d rather be insane and alive, than sane… and dead.”

When McClure tries to double-cross Brown by using his own thugs against him, Fante and Mingo pretend to go along and wind up turning their machine guns on him instead, while Brown sardonically watches grinning like the sadist he is. With a flair of evil embellishment Brown walks over to McClure who has two machine guns trained on him, and takes out his hearing aid. Brown-“I‘m gonna give you a break. I’m gonna fix it, so you don’t hear the bullets.” It is a stunning scene we are watching from McClure’s perspective the flashing lights and smokey tendrils from the gun fire happen at us, but it is all done in eerie quiet and darkness. We are experiencing the frightening moment when he is shot to death. We become McClure at that moment.

Later Brown wants to dispose of his two thugs so there is no evidence of murder, he hands them a package while they are hiding out in an old building in the basement that used to be a speakeasy, They think the package is filled with food, guns and their share of the money they heisted from the bank, but it’s filled with dynamite. As the two men are blown up, leaving Mingo alive for a brief moment just enough to give a death bed confession to exact revenge for his lover’s death and point the finger at Brown.

Richard Conte is icily ruthless as the film’s antagonist, Mr. Brown who is not known by any other name, signifying an enigmatic symbolism for abject violence and immorality. As Dickos states “his imaginative brutality, Lewis bridges violence to the audience’s darker, vicarious desire to see pain inflicted on the screen”

There is a sense of noir fatalism and an underlying current of deviant and provocative sexual appetite within The Big Combo. Much of the violence is influence by a strong element of sadism. The relationship between Susan and Brown is structured by fatalism, as she is sullen and submissive to his neurotic controlling fixation, while she wants to escape she shows no strength or determination other than to give in to it. Brown is obsessed with Susan as an object, preoccupied with her body. This is illustrated in one scene where he devours her with studied kisses, he worships her ,objectifies her with salacious flattery in a way that perversely brings her to ecstasy. It might be this odd sexual attraction to Brown that keeps her passive to his controlling behavior toward her.

From Film Noir Encyclopedia: Edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward
“The Homosexuality of Mingo and Fante is smothered in an atmosphere of murder and sadistic torture , as they refine the conventions of violence into a sexual ritual. Joseph H. Lewis’s direction strongly points to a crude sexual bias throughout the film. Even Diamond appears to be sexually frustrated and compensating for impotence. Much in the same way as Lewis’s classic Gun Crazy, there is an affinity between sex and violence.; and the exploration of futility presents an ambience strangely reminiscent of an earlier period of noir films, such as Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window. These attitude combine with John Alton’s photography to create a wholly defined film noir, as striking contrasts between the black and white photography and Lewis’s sexual overtones isolate The Big Combo’s characters in a dark, insular universe of unspoken repression and graphic violence.” -Carl Macek

From Street With No Name by Andrew Dickos

“The Homoerotic violence in the Mingo-Fante relationship, unencumbered by misguided sociological sentiments, is still stereotyped psycho-sexuality —offensive enough on another score—but it is raw and consistent with the noir world. The privilege of noir cinema, as distinguished from other genres, lies in the latitude these films were permitted in exploring sexual power and its ambiguity, and the reason is apparent; as the cautionary cinema of the great negation of a “healthy’ puritanical American vision, the film noir almost mandates a depiction, however perverse, of those repressed impulses reigning hand-in hand with the anarchy that drives its protagonists to violence and paranoia. Unrepressed sexuality alongside these characteristics is far too messy to contain, so it must be vanquished. When it is particularly threatening, one may be sure that there is a woman involved.”

Lewis’s The Big Combo- “where it becomes almost pornographic to see Susan Lowell hopelessly submit to what is surely suggested to be an act of oral sex performed by her crime-lord boyfriend, Mr. Brown. But Lewis is no pornographer, he is a sensualist in the most serious way. No other works in American film until the 1960s broached the acknowledgment of these carnal hungers as a life-enhancing dimension of dangerous living—indeed, in living a short, intense life unto quick death.”

Both Lewis’ film noir masterpieces Gun Crazy and The Big Combo are sexually defined by the discursive violence of the external world—so much a corollary for the violence of passion that Lewis and screenwriter Philip Jordan can barely mask the story of The Big Combo as merely another sensational example of the extend to which organized crime corrupted postwar American Life.

Your EverLovin’ Joey saying there’s an underlying current of shadows and light here at The Last Drive In, but no worries, you got what it takes to stick around -no need to turn up the volume for you to hear how much I appreciate you all!

Nightmare Alley (1949) In the cutting room with editor Barbara McLean. See the descent of man, the human condition up close, and throw in a Geek, please.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY 1947Barbara McLean: Groundbreaking Film Editor

Photo from February issue of Vogue 1952 here’s cutter Barbara McLean editing All About Eve

Director William Goulding’s Allegorical Carnival/ Noir masterpiece based on William Lindsay Gresham’s book: an Americana study of the rise and fall of personal morality, that reaches to the lowest depths of show business with sleazy inhabitants and the sinister and shadowy world of  freak- shows, mentalist acts, geeks, alcoholism and the voyeuristic throng that feed off the human suffering of others

Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle and Joan Blondell as Zeena Krumbein
Ian Keith as the alcoholic, mentalist Pete Krumbein

In Nightmare Alley Barbara McLean contributes to creating a landscape of a distorted reality along side the darkly, clandestine and arcane carnival atmosphere. The film is beautifully woven, as the seamless images flow into one another. McLean blends together the invisible strands that only one’s dreams could effectively manifest. McLean’s editing constructs much of the surreal and tormented ‘movement’ of the film. It’s what transports each scene of the film, making it every bit as if WE were inhabiting someone’s nightmare.

Coleen Gray creating a little electrifying entertainment for the crowd

With 62 film credits to her name, half of which were with filmmaker Henry King, Barbara McLean is a master of cutting and shaping. She’s worked on some of my all time favorite films including this film, Goulding’s Nightmare Alley, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950), Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette (1943), Robert Wise’s The Desert Rats (1953), John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941) and again Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950). McLean also worked as editor on Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata 1953, and in 1954 with Michael Curtiz’s on The Egyptian. She edited the first movie filmed in CinemaScope, The Robe (1952), directed by Henry Koster.

Bette Davis and Celeste Holm in All About Eve
Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette
Linda Darnell in No Way Out
Gene Tierney in Tobacco Road

Barbara McLean was one of the most recognized editors working during the reign of Darryl F. Zanuck at the 20th Century Fox Studio, from the 1930s to the 1960s. Eventually achieving the honor of division chief of the editing department in 1949. She joined Fox in 1935 as one of only eight female film editors working in Hollywood in the 1930s. McLean was part of a huge team of technicians, writers, directors, collaborators that Zanuck went to for guidance. She was very influential in much of  Zanuck’s decision making process, as she often acted as adviser to the Hollywood movie mogul, helping him coordinate even a single shot.

She won the 1944 Academy Award for Film Editing for her work on Wilson (1944) director Henry King’s biopic film of Woodrow Wilson’s political career. McLean was nominated another 6 times for that award, including her work on All About Eve. I think she should have won the 23rd annual Academy Award for for All About Eve, but she lost to Ralph E Winters and Conrad A Nerig for their work on King Solomon’s Mines. It was a tough year to compete with nominations also going to The Third Man and Sunset Boulevard. McLean’s greatest collaboration was with film maker Henry King, a relationship that spanned over 29 films including Twelve O’Clock High 1949.

Her last editing credit was for Henry King’s Untamed (1955). In later years, McLean acted primarily in a supervisory and administrative capacity, eventually retiring from 20th Century Fox in 1969, due to her husband’s declining health. She received the inaugural American Cinema Editors Career Achievement Award in 1988. McLean died in Newport Beach, California in 1996.

Twelve O’Clock High 1949 with Gregory Peck

Her impact was summarized by Adrian Dannatt in a 1996 obituary in The Independent: McLean was “a revered editor who perhaps single-handedly established women as vital creative figures in an otherwise patriarchal industry.” Writer Tom Stempel, in a piece about Darryl F. Zanuck writes of McLean‘s influence on Zanuck‘s film making; “For all her focus on keeping the narrative moving, McLean’s editing could dazzle if called for. In A Bell for Adano (1945), she took material director Henry King shot on the return of the Italian POWs to their village and put it together with such a pure sense of emotion that when she cut at exactly the right moment to King’s overhead shot of the prisoners and villagers coming together in the square, the cut was more heart-stopping than conventional close-ups would have been.”

McLean brings together the writers and directors vision and gives it a completeness, a cohesion, like alchemy with film footage, she creates cinema gold. According to Bright Lights Film Journal “the basic rules of film editing, first established in the silent era, still govern the industry today: maintain your eye lines, preserve continuity, respect planarity (the rules governing the transposition of three dimensions onto a two-dimensional plane), find a good rhythm, and, most important, always advance the story.” Here is where McLean excels. If you look at the variety of narratives, milieus and landscapes McLean has stitched together in the editing room, you can see how expansive her vision explores the realms of the human condition, moral corruption and redemption weaving together images that shape the story into ‘the big picture’, with all the little pieces of the intricate moments of the framework, revealing an intimate story, a memorable story, a universal notion of people living in a state of transformation.

If I could enter the film industry at this stage of my life, there would be one thing aside from my already being a music composer of course, would be to sit in the editing chair. One of the things I look for in a film, and feel passionately certain about is amongst the cinematography, scoring and casting , if there is one singularly essential component to what makes a film greater…it’s the editing.

We should also celebrate the women working in the very male dominated career of film editing, women like Barbara McLean and even Dorothy Spencer (Lifeboat 1944, Stagecoach 1939 and the film I recently blogged about Valley of The Dolls 1967).

I should also mention, Anne Bauchens, who was Cecil B. DeMille’s editor, cutting nearly all his movies from 1915 until his death in 1959 and Margaret Booth. Two women who haven’t been put in the greatest light in terms of their ‘difficult’ personalities and skill, something I’ll write about in future. But aren’t women always difficult to work with? Geez.

And so let’s raise a toast to Barbara McLean’s contributions to cinema… a pioneer in the industry not only breaking the glass ceiling but taking all the pieces and putting them back together to make a indelible cinematic mural for ages to come.

And now for the Carnival ‘Geek’ in Nightmare Alley: Tyrone Power’s astonishing portrayal of Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle the ambitious carney who rises to evangelistic notoriety as a slick and cunning mentalist, only to descend into the realm of self destruction when power corrupts, consumes and destroys his life, ultimately leading him back to side show freakery becoming the very ‘geek’ he once found repulsive. McLean’s treatment of the film’s climatic excursion into the bowels of the carnival and Stan’s diminution into the shadows is quite viscerally staggering.

Tyrone Power’s nightmarish descent into the world of the ‘geek’

According to the book Carny Sideshows by Tony Gangi, a ‘Geek’ is:

An unskilled performer whose performance consists of shocking, repulsive and repugnant acts. This “lowest of the low” member of the carny trade would commonly bite the head off a living chicken, or sit in a bed of snakes. Some historians distinguish between “geeks” who pretend to be wild men, and “glomming geeks” whose act includes eating disgusting things. See the 1949 movie “Nightmare Alley” for a good geek story as well as for an excellent depiction of the mentalist’s technique of “cold reading”. In later years the geek show turned into a “see the pitiful victim of drug abuse” show. “Geek” as a verb (“he geeked”) is one of several terms in use among wrestlers meaning to intentionally cut oneself to draw blood.

A geek who bites the heads off snakes…

Either on the fairway or the cutting room floor, I’ll be there! Your ever faithful -MonsterGirl!

Impact: (1949) “This is for me and Irene sucker”

Impact (1949) Directed by Arthur Lubin Impact stars Brian Donlevy as Walter Williams a wealthy San Fransisco business man who thinks his wife Irene played by Helen Walker ( great as the dark dominating force Lilith in Nightmare Alley) is truly the adoring woman she pretends to be. Here’s a great article from Movie Morlocks about the unsung talent of sexy Helen Walker.

Movie Morlocks.com a TCM site

Irene Gives her husband monogrammed shirts with his initials and calls him softy. She so adept at delivering the saccharine flattery of a doting wife. Unknown to the misguided Walter, she’s done the same monogram initials bit for her lover Tony Barrett as Jim Torrence a ruthless opportunist who has no hesitation in harming Walter to get what he wants.

Jim utters the iconic words from the film that reverberate in Walter’s head once he awakens from the nightmare, “This is for me and Irene sucker” just before he smashes the tire iron down upon Walter’s head.

Before the married couple are supposed to leave on a trip, Irene sets Walter up by feigning illness therefore not feeling well enough to travel with him. Instead she sends her lover who is pretending to be her cousin Jim Torrence to meet up with Walter so he can give Jim a lift. Jim plans on bumping Walter off along the road side and meeting up with Irene later at a Hotel under assumed names.

In a moment of shear fatalistic retribution while speeding away from the crime scene Jim Torrance dies in a horrible head on collision with a truck, which burns his body beyond recognition. After hitting Walter on the head with a tire iron he viciously throws him down the side of a cliff and leaves him for dead.

But Walter awakens bloodied and dazed climbs onto the back of a Bekins truck and winds up in Larkspur Idaho where he takes a job as a mechanic working for a war widow, the exquisite Ella Raines as Marsha Peters. Ella is even sylph like in her greasy mechanic’s jumpsuit and cap.

Walter is hired at the gas station using a fake name, and while Marsha is beloved in the community she is not a very good mechanic so Walter takes over for three months, living as a roomer at Marsha’s kindly mother’s home. Walter becomes part of the community, as a volunteer fireman, and starts to relish leaving the big city life behind and the double crossing wife Irene for this quaint existence in Larkspur.

Walter is assumed to be dead, which is all over the news print and later his wife Irene is sent to jail accused of plotting his murder, being hounded by Lt.Quincy played by Charles Coburn.

Walter reads the news, anticipating his revenge now with Irene sentenced to death, and he and Marsha begin to develop feelings for each other. When Walter tells the truth to Marsha..she insists the he do the right thing and go back to San Fransisco and show that he’s still alive.

Ironically, the police then believe the yarn that Irene spins that it was Walter who murdered her lover and not the other way around. Now Marsha and Lt Quincy must track down Su Lin, the William’s maid played by Anna May Wong who isn’t sure if her testimony would either help or hurt the kindly Walter Williams.

While Impact has some of the essential elements of a noir film, it works really well as a MeloNoir, the merging of melodrama and noir together.Brian Donlevy gives a great performance as the paragon betrayed patsy by his ruthless wife Irene. Helen Walker is icy as ever and Ellen is just gorgeous sitting on the stoop in Larkspur.

The Narrator starts off the tone of the film by saying  Impact, the force with which two lives come together. Sometimes for good, sometimes for evil.


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)