This past week I finally got around to crossing a classic Film Noir off my “Need to Watch’ list. I had read for years about NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) and its supposedly harsh story of a smart, charming sociopath who is able to move from Carnival hustler to Séance conductor as he furthers his goal of becoming as rich as possible. I was curious as to how a film produced in the 1940s would portray such a character and if indeed the ending would come off as rough and nasty as I had been lead to believe. Or would the film find a way to cop out?
The other point of interest I was curious to check out was that the self-centered con-artist is played by Tyrone Power. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time based mostly on his fun adventure movies such as THE BLACK SWAN and THE MARK OF ZORRO so I knew his onscreen persona. I wondered if the studio system as it stood in the post-war era would really let a handsome leading man like Power depict a character that the audience would have to eventually come to hate. Also, could the actor make me believe that he was that sociopath monster? Could Tyrone Power convince me he was someone capable of the hideous actions I knew he would have to engage in to be seen as a credible high level scammer?
The answers to these questions are complex. First, Power is very good in NIGHTMARE ALLEY. He turns in a fine performance and proves himself able to communicate a wide range of the complex emotions required even when the script sometimes falls down. It is these rare script failings that I think are the only problems the film really has. This trouble is best illustrated in an early dialog exchange between Power’s character Stan and Joan Blondell as Zeena when he actually says something to the effect of “I wonder why I am this way. Why do I never think about anyone other than myself?” This is a terrible scene and is so bizarre that it nearly made me laugh out loud. Although this is early enough in the movie so that we are not yet aware of how dark his chosen path will be, the fact that he is self-reflective enough to ask this question is silly. For Stan to have recognized this aspect of his personality would mean that he was aware that it IS a problem. But by his actions and statements throughout the remainder of the story it is clear he does not think his way of looking at life and the people around him is a problem at all. He is a user of people and others are only as useful to him in that they might benefit him in some way. He has no concern for people or their feelings and he proves it repeatedly. Self-reflection is just not going to be in him! Of course, I suspect this odd bit of dialog was placed in the film as a sop to the suppressive Hayes Code in effect at the time. The de rigueur censorship of the time would require a great deal of care if this tale was going to be brought to the screen in any form. This bit of verbal explication of Stan’s lack of empathy is tin eared in the extreme but I’m sure when the film was produced it was seen as the best way to get this character onscreen in any form. Having him spell out his internal defect so bluntly might have been considered necessary to show the audience of the time that something serious was wrong with him. It doesn’t play well now but it may have in 1947.