This week we delve deeper into the film noir genre with the seldom seen, but critically acclaimed, “Nightmare Alley.”
The film stars the “almost irritatingly handsome” Tyrone Power as carny Stanton Carlisle. Carlisle aspires to rise up through the carnival hierarchy by charming mind reader Zeena (Joan Blondell) into sharing the secret to her act in order to replace her husband Pete (Ian Keith) who has descended into an alcoholic haze. As he climbs over everyone above him to succeed, Carlisle is also fascinated by the person at the bottom of the carnival hierarchy – the sideshow geek, who bites the heads off chickens for his daily bottle of booze.
Even by film noir standards this is dark material. That this unlikely film was made at all is due to some powerful Hollywood figures’ commitment to William Lindsey Graham’s novel.
Tyrone Power was one of 20th Century Fox’s biggest stars, known for his romantic and swashbuckling leads in films such as “Marie Antoinette” and “The Mark of Zorro.” After returning from the war, Power wanted to improve his image and be known as an actor of substance. He bought the rights to Graham’s novel for the princely sum of $60,000 and began to gather allies in his fight to get the film made.
His first major supporter was popular comedian and toastmaster Georgie Jessel. Jessel took the project to legendary 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck, without even having read the book. Zanuck did read it and immediately declared it un-filmable because so much of the subject matter would not get past the Production Code censors. Power and Jessel somehow convinced Zanuck to make the film, but a great deal of the material had to be toned down or changed, including the ending.
With Zanuck’s support, the film was able to attract some major Hollywood players. Power suggested director Edmund Goulding, with whom he had worked on “The Razor’s Edge.” Goulding was well known for films such as “Grand Hotel,” “Of Human Bondage,” and “Dark Victory,” he but had never done a film noir. Innovative cinematographer Lee Garmes shot the film with stunning noir-style light and shadow.
Jules Furthman, (“The Big Sleep,” “Rio Bravo,” and “To Have and Have Not”) wrote the screenplay, deftly suggesting the darker content of the novel, while staying within the bounds of what could the Production Code would allow.
Zanuck got letters of protest over the subject matter while the film was in production, so the studio put little money or effort into promoting it. Though he did star in “The Sun Also Rises” a decade later, he spent most of the rest of his brief career (he died at the age of 44) playing the romantic leads he had tried to overcome.
Though the film was not a success upon release, it slowly earned a reputation as a cult classic. Due to a dispute between producer Jessel and the studio, it was neither screened nor released on home video for decades. Fox finally released it on DVD in 2005.
We hope you’ll join us for this opportunity to see this unique film noir gem on the big screen.