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.”
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.
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 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)