It takes one to catch one.
We always envision ourselves becoming successful. We dream of the big payday. We work towards elevating our status even if it might mean intentionally leaving those who helped us through the process behind. Such aspirations are always attainable because we need to believe our lives can be improved. And then we look at those who are suffering with an upturned nose, quizzically wondering how they could have ever let themselves fall so far as if they had a choice in the matter. Maybe some did, but circumstances are never equal. And privilege is often blinding. We shield ourselves from the failure, insulating our minds from it with a sort of superstitious belief that we can hold it at bay simply by refusing to acknowledge how nothing lasts forever.
It’s not like Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle (Tyrone Power) isn’t surrounded by cautionary tales either. Director Edmund Goulding and screenwriter Jules Furthman (from the novel by William Lindsay Gresham) even have him quizzically ask that question at the start of Nightmare Alley in context with the sorry “Geek” at the center of his circus’s most controversial act. How could someone get so low as to let themselves be turned into an animalistic beast willing to eat live chickens for the promise of a bottle of gin once the crowd goes home? Well, Stan is about to find out. Maybe it will be him who stumbles or maybe it will be someone he knows. Either way, it will be a result of his hubristic desire to possess power beyond imagination.
That and his willful ignorance to the prospect that success is only ever temporary. The same greed that pushes regular men and women to take the risks necessary for fame and fortune is ultimately that which clouds their judgment when the time comes to choose between satisfaction and one dice roll too many. He refuses to believe Pete Krumbein (Ian Keith) when he tells him that he wasn’t too far from being a “Geek” himself. Pete was once a co-headliner with the love of his life Zeena (Joan Blondell). They had a priceless verbal code that allowed them to invisibly con a room of strangers into thinking whichever of them was wearing the blindfold could read minds. Hubris broke them apart, leaving them ravaged by guilt and shame.
Now they’re back to their roots in a traveling circus. Zeena looks through her crystal ball at a chalkboard Pete writes supposedly destroyed notes (that Stan collected from the audience) for her to read—when he isn’t passed out drunk. She protects him even as he gets worse and worse, feeling it’s her duty to stand by him when perhaps she didn’t before. Stan looks at them and sees opportunity. If he can get Pete out of the picture (rehab), he might be able to get closer to Zeena and learn the code so they can rekindle that prior success on a larger stage. She’s not averse to the prospect if the Tarot cards declare it a sound one. What happens, though, if triumph’s price demands a sacrifice?
It always does. Winners cannot exist without a few losers and Stan is too cutthroat to care about the latter if he comes out as the former. Death and betrayal become necessities en route to marquee billing. Suddenly Stan and his new wife Molly (Coleen Gray) are the talk of the town in high society. She’s the beauty in the audience distracting everyone who gazes upon her from the very deliberate cadence of her words. He’s the incomparable grifter with enough charm to earn a stranger’s trust and enough courage to know when to take a chance and call someone’s bluff. The more it works, however, the more confident he becomes. If he can dupe wealthy benefactors with parlor tricks, why not up the ante further?
Add the lingering guilt of what he did to reach the top and an enigmatic femme fatale in psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) duplicitously earning Stan’s trust as confidant and partner once a lucrative opportunity to expand his reach arrives and his Icarus’ flight skyward is bound to catch fire eventually. The question is whether Stan recognizes it in time or if his false sense of immortality will prove too opaque a barrier to accept that a magician as good as him isn’t immune to falling for the same tricks. And then what? If he’s exposed as the charlatan he is or, worse yet, a rube like all his victims, what purpose is there to continue? To have it all and lose is a tough pill to swallow.
No one should be surprised to discover that Nightmare Alley failed to light up the box office upon release in 1947. It’s a dark tale whose positive discoveries are mere precursors to tragic ends. Using its heroic stars in morally ambiguous roles might not have helped audience anticipation either (Power begged the studio to option Gresham’s novel so that he could break free of typecast roles and dig into something with teeth). Even so, it’s not quite as dark as it could be considering it throws Stan a bone at the end in contrast to the source material. It’s hardly happy, though, when you think about what happened to his end’s thematic counterpart from the start. But the price of karmic retribution shouldn’t be optimistic. Actions have consequences.
The whole is pretty fast paced with multiple time jumps to propel the story forward and leave characters who have served their purposes behind. Once Stan is done with someone, something, or some place, Goulding and company fade to black and refocus the camera elsewhere to continue his journey up (and eventually down). And the lens never leaves his face to ensure everything gets revealed as being a result of his arrogance regardless of whether another player is also acting upon him. The truth of the matter is that no one could dupe him the way he is duped if it wasn’t for his belief that he was untouchable. Zeena said it would end badly and he refused to listen. Unfortunately for him, destiny doesn’t care either way.