Blog Directory CineVerse: There's a sucker born every minute

There's a sucker born every minute

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Like vaudeville and sideshow exhibits, freak shows became an extinct form of entertainment decades ago (circuses may not be far behind), and for good reason: They commonly exploited differently-abled, physically deformed, psychologically disturbed, and substance-dependent individuals along with a naïve public eager for cheap thrills. The 1932 horror cult film Freaks stands as perhaps the most authentic and shocking of the Hollywood thrillers to depict this subculture, but 1947’s Nightmare Alley comes awfully close. Our CineVerse crew took a gander at this picture last week and arrived at several observations and opinions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What about Nightmare Alley did you find different, surprising, or memorable?

  • It pulls its punches, which would have been understandable during the Production Code Administration censorship era.
    • It’s not going to show you the geek biting the head off a chicken or tangible sexual tension between Stanton and the three females in his life. And it’s not going to leave Stanton to a hopelessly irredeemable conclusion. This suggests that he has learned his lesson and can be rehabilitated now that Molly has found him or, more negatively, implies that he and Molly are bound to become the new Zeena and Pete, with Stanton eventually succumbing to his alcoholism as Pete did.
    • It’s an interesting dénouement, considering that Stanton has performed criminal acts, including money-fleecing and possibly manslaughter.

Nightmare Alley is regarded as one of the finest films noir in the genre. What classic noir characteristics does it possess, and what noir attributes does it lack?

  • There is a femme fatale character, or spider woman, who leads men into danger and doom, in this case, Lilith – although she isn’t a typical seductress who is sexually and romantically involved with the male lead, a la Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.
  • The setting isn’t consistently an urban jungle represented by a large city; yes, Chicago is the town where Stanton eventually sets up shop as a master hustler, but roughly half of the film occurs in rural areas where the carnival travels.
  • As in countless noir pictures, the anti-hero/villain is predestined to failure, suffering, and/or death because the message and credo of noir are almost always fatalistic. Yet, while this film’s ending is downbeat and unresolved, it insinuates possible hope with the down-and-out Stanton discovered by his wife Molly – although the two seem destined to become the new Zeena and Pete, her alcoholic husband. In the original novel, the story ends with Stanton accepting the job of geek, insinuating that he is fated to live out the rest of his life as a helpless drunk enslaved by carnies.
  • The tone and vibe of Nightmare Alley are unswervingly pessimistic, foreboding, and dark, which is in keeping with most noir movies.
  • It’s a somewhat rare instance of an A-list noir that benefits from a bigger budget, ample studio resources, and known stars. Many noirs were B-picture affairs that suffered from lower production values.

Major themes

  • Hubris: Like Apollo, Stanton flies too close to the sun and falls back to earth.
  • Blasphemy and sacrilege: Stanton attempts to play God in trying to fleece victims based on their spiritual beliefs.
  • Dark destiny and inescapable fate: Zeena tries to warn Stanton with her tarot cards that he is headed for a bad if not deadly outcome, but he refuses to give these superstitions credence, to his downfall.
  • The fooler becomes the fooled: Stanton prides himself on his persuasive talents and ability to trick the gullible, but he is eventually hustled by an even more cunning con artist in Lilith.
  • Pride cometh before a fall.

Similar works

  • Freaks
  • The Lost Weekend
  • Ace in the Hole
  • Strangers on a Train
  • The Prestige

Other films directed by Edmund Goulding

  • Grand Hotel
  • The Razor’s Edge
  • Dark Victory
  • The Dawn Patrol
  • The Great Lie

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