Monday, March 6, 2017

Short Take: Nightmare Alley

The 1947 noir melodrama Nightmare Alley doesn’t quite come together, but it’s pretty compelling regardless. Tyrone Power plays an opportunistic carny worker who graduates to working as an upscale mentalist at a swank Chicago nightclub. His ambition doesn’t stop there. He meets up with a corrupt psychologist (Helen Walker), and the two connive to fleece her patients with spiritualist swindles. The screenplay, credited to Jules Furthman, is shaped as a rise-and-fall morality play. It perhaps errs in making the Power character an essentially good-man-gone-wrong. He seems aimless in the initial scenes, and those might have had more urgency if his hustling nature was clear from the start. The film also doesn’t develop the crookedness of the psychologist very well; the subplot feels as if it’s been truncated. But the film has a lot going for it. The carnival setting of the first act is richly realized, and director Edmund Goulding gets strong work from the cast. Power brings a charismatic intensity to his role that is just about perfect. He is completely convincing as a successful con-artist; he also makes the viewer feel the character’s ruthlessness, and when things go bad for him, his anxiety and fears. Helen Walker hits just the right enigmatic note as the psychologist. One is never quite sure of how to take her, which in the end proves the correct reaction to her character. Joan Blondell has a rich, world-weary expansiveness as the carny mentalist who teaches the Power character the ropes. As her broken-down alcoholic husband, Ian Keith has a depth and thoughtfulness one doesn’t quite expect. The almost angelically pretty Coleen Gray probably has the most difficult role. She plays the carnival beauty who marries Power’s character, and becomes his partner in his mentalist routines. The character is the story’s conscience, a part that often drags on a film, but Gray’s performance is so fresh and direct that her scenes never feel sappy. The dense, black-and-white noir visuals are courtesy of cinematographer Lee Garmes and production designers J. Russell Spencer and Lyle Wheeler. The film is adapted from the novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham.

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