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Nightmare Alley

An odd pattern has emerged over the years in cinema: The films usually most revered by each year's end find themselves eventually lost to the ether, while many once reviled or written off find their audience in future generations. Look at 1947: the Academy Award winner for Best Picture was Gentleman's Agreement, which is now most notable for being a rather shallow look at anti-Semitism, whereas movies like Out of the Past and The Lady From Shanghai were ignored by the Academy for being genre efforts. Today, they are regarded as masterworks. Of course, those films had their fans at the time (and using the Oscars as an arbiter of quality amounts to little more than swinging at a straw man), but even darker and less renowned pictures — like 1947's Nightmare Alley — were met with confusion and distaste, only to be rediscovered and revered. It helps if there's a history of distribution problems: Films that are kept away from the mainstream earn a fetishistic, want-to-see aura that can only be created by absence — something that happened to Alley, thus granting it a mystique. But it's easy to see why it attracted such a cult following; it's is a modest masterpiece of noir with a stunning, fatalistic mood and a strong performance from Fox's then-matinee-idol Tyrone Power. Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, a young roustabout who finds himself enraptured with the carnival life. Working as a barker and showman, he learns the tricks of the trade from those around him and begins an affair with Zeena (Joan Blondell), a seer who has a lush for a husband. Zeena and her spouse Pete (Ian Keith) used to work a crowd over with a coded system that made her look like a psychic, but since he hit the bottle, they've fallen out of favor. But Stanton is persistent, and when Pete accidentally dies — partly due to Stanton giving him wood alcohol — he gets close enough to Zeena to learn her old scheme. Stanton is also carrying on an affair with Molly (Colleen Gray), whose father Bruno (Mike Mazurki) is the carny's strongman, and when their dalliance is made public, the troop force Stanton to make a decent woman out of Molly. Now gifted with a great talent for phony psychic powers, he takes his act to the big time, playing nightclubs as "The Great Stanton." And when he hooks a rich old lady by pretending to channel her dead daughter, he wins national fame. Stanton also meets Lilith (Helen Walker), a psychiatrist whom he fancies, and a woman who embodies her Biblical name. But as Stanton's act grows more and more renowned, he realizes he can't sustain his charlatan pretenses forever.

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A dark and gripping slice of film noir, Nightmare Alley was greenlit against 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck's better judgment. The script was based on a book by William Lindsay Gresham, which was popular but considered too dark and unappealing for a mainstream audience. But Tyrone Power wanted to make the movie and fought for the role, so Zanuck re-teamed him with director Edmund Goulding, hoping to rekindle the magic they made with his otherwise less-than-good The Razor's Edge the previous year. They also had a script by the great Jules Furthman (To Have and Have Not) , who imbued the material with his panache, even though he was forced to modify the novel's ending for a happier denouement. With Stanton introduced on screen while staring at the carny's freak, there's a sense of darkness and oddity that is immediately gripping, and Power offers a carnality that's palpable (for contrast, in The Razor's Edge he comes off as a saintly eunuch). Charges are still made that he was wrong for the part, but it's good against-type casting, and the film has that wonderfully eerie sense that comes with great noir. However, when the movie was finally in the can, Zanuck buried it. It was rediscovered in the 1970s, when it first gained its cult following. Nonetheless, 20th Century Fox was so embarrassed by the title over the years that this 2005 DVD release marks its first home-video appearance. Fox presents Nightmare Alley in a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with audio available on both a remastered stereo track and the original mono recording. Part of the second wave of "Fox Film Noir" releases (with a spine-number of 6), it arrives alongside William Keightley's The Street with No Name and Sam Fuller's CinemaScope remake House of Bamboo. For a title that was considered a redheaded stepchild in the back of the vault, the source-print is remarkable, with ace cinematographer's Lee Garmes' work scintillating to look at. Extras are limited to the film's theatrical trailer and an engaging commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver, who have written numerous books on films noir, including The Noir Style and the Film Noir Reader series. Keep-case.
—DSH



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