Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley - DanishNightmare Alley (1947)

Starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Helen Walker and Coleen Gray

Nightmare Alley is bona fide “carny noir”. Based on the classic novel by William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley follows the career of carnival con man Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power). In this Lothario Alger tale, Stan seduces and double-crosses his way to fame and fortune, only to be outwitted by steely shrink Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker).

Darryl Zanuck refused to release Nightmare Alley without a “happy ending” — so a fallen Stanton is rescued at the end. But if Hollywood endings make you queasy, read Gresham’s original pulp novel for a true take on crime, slime and depravity.

William Lindsay Gresham was an early connoisseur of carny life. If it disappeared, caught on fire, foretold the future or carried an extra arm, he made friends with it and wrote about it (see Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny (1954)). A troubled and deeply melancholy man, Gresham sought salvation and meaning in religion, Marxism, freudian analysis, tarot, buddhism and scientology. In the end he rejected them all.

Stanton Carlise is too shrewd for soul searching. In Stan’s world everyone is a mark. In Nightmare Alley we see the world through Stan’s eyes. We get a crash course in double-dealing, mind reading and engineering a “spook racket”. We see the rich as depraved suckers. We keep a watchful eye out for the cops. At the end of a long day a bottle beckons.

No one gets off easy in Stan’s bleak world. With the possible exception of Zeena who manages to cobble together some kind of life with the crippled sideshow artist Joe after Stan “accidentally” kills her husband. Gresham’s depiction of their summer home and vegetable garden is the only glimpse of stability and growth in the novel. Zeena and Joe’s efforts to clean him up and get him some “mitt work” are also the only glimpses of real kindness.

Everyone else keeps moving, either up or down.

Stan’s downward spiral, set in motion by a decision to trust the wrong woman and his rampant drinking mirror Gresham’s sad demise almost two decades later. Long broke after the success of Nightmare Alley, deserted by his wife, and riddled with cancer Gresham checks into the Dixie Hotel in New York, the same hotel where he write Nightmare Alley, to commit suicide.

Gresham’s morbid calling card found in his pocket says it all,

No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired.

For other carny fare read:

Robert Edmond Alter’s Carny Kill. Berkeley: Black Lizard Books, 1986. (First published 1966)

Fredric Brown’s The Dead Ringer. New York: Bantam Books, 1954. (First published 1948)

Fredric Brown’s Madball. Greenwich: Gold Medal Books (Fawcett Publications), 1961. (First published 1953)