Wed 10 Oct 2012
WILLIAM LINDSAY GRESHAM – Nightmare Alley. Rinehart & Co., hardcover, 1946. Triangle Books, hardcover, Photoplay edition, 1948. Signet #738, paperback, 1949. Popular Library, paperback, 1976. Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1986. New York Review of Books, softcover, 2010. Included in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, Library of America, hardcover, 1997.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY. 20th Century Fox, 1947. Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Taylor Holmes, Mike Mazurki, Ian Keith. Based on the novel by William Lindsay Graham. Director: Edmund Goulding.
The very words “nightmare alley” with their fusion of dreams and squalor, phantasm and filth, promise a lot when you put them on a book. Or a movie. Nowadays it’s possible to read a book and watch the film made from it in close proximity, and a while back I had a bit of ghoulish fun with the exercise.
Nightmare Alley was William Lindsay Gresham’s first novel, and though there’s a bit of fat in the book, it’s still a powerful and often unsettling tale of Stan Carlisle, a smooth carnival huckster who promotes himself to spiritualist and then religious con-man, rising in society only to find that the seeds of his own undoing were always within him and “what we saw and he didn’t” have grown to hideous (nightmarish?) proportions.
This was the work that brought the term geek to the public, and Gresham’s description of just what a geek was in those days, and how one was made, is still chilling today. It ain’t for every taste, but fans of Jim Thompson and David Goodis will find it a rare and — in its own way — unforgettable treat.
(PARENTHETICAL NOTE: William Lindsay Gresham (1909-1962) was, from all accounts, an alcoholic who abused his wife and children and ended up a suicide. His treatment of his wife and kids was bad enough that his spouse took the children and fled to England — where she met, fell in love with, and married C. S. Lewis. Their story can be seen in the film Shadowlands.)
The movie Nightmare Alley that came out in 1947 is something of a surprise from a major studio like Fox, a “class” director like Edmund (Grand Hotel) Goulding, and producer George Jessell (!) but it’s slick, savage, seedy and immensely satisfying.
Tyrone Power — a smooth leading man with an odd flair for self-destructive roles — puts bitter bite into his performance as Carlisle, ably supported by a spirited cast of capable players, including Joan Blondell, Ian Keith, Mike Mazurki, and chilling Helen Walker as a lethal psychologist; the scene where she destroys Power’s psyche is worthy of Lady MacBeth.
Lee Garmes’ evocative, sleazy-splendid photography helps out too, but best of all is Jules Furthman’s cunning screenplay. Undulating past the censors, he takes the masochism explicit in the book and makes it implicit in the character, and even hints at a darker ending than the one we see on screen.
Furthman always was a good hand at adapting the works of others (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, etc.) with a slick trick of slicing just enough out of a book to get past the censors, while still preserving the tone of the piece, and his work here is simply splendid.