The Classic Movie Blog Association Spring Blogathon runs from April 16th to the 19th with a focus on the Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir. Click HERE for the fascinating articles.
Tyrone Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, con man extraordinaire whose biggest fall guy was himself.
Stan is a fellow whose confidence often crosses over the border into arrogance. Carlisle is handsome and has a surface charm that wins him many admirers, especially among women. If life hasn't always been easy, at least the immediate pleasures he desires have come his way.
Confidence is an important component of a "confidence man". Like others in that dubious trade, Stanton has the confidence that he is always smarter than his mark. The gullible, for their part, have complete confidence in him. It is a circle that feeds on itself.
Novelist William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 publication Nightmare Alley exposed the seedy world of the carnival and the "spook racket" basing the fiction on his real-life experiences as a carny. Jules Furthman, the prolific and versatile screenwriter of Shanghai Express and Bombshell wrote this 1947 film. Edmund Goulding directed the film, having worked previously with Tyrone Power on The Razor's Edge. Lee Garmes, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Shanghai Express paints the sordid background of the film with a dream-like sheen.
Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell
Joan Blondell plays Zeena Krumbein, a carny mentalist who was once the Queen of the Big Time with her husband Pete played by Ian Keith. Blondell gives us a character who has seen it all yet despite her jaded exterior has a strong emotional core. Ian Keith is phenomenal as a totally broken man. Zeena's infidelities drove Pete to drink and ruined their prosperity. Guilt has driven Zeena to try to make things up to her husband, but that doesn't keep her from spending time with the attractive Stan. For his part, Stan has his eye on the "code" which made the Krumbein's mind-reading act the best in the business. Just think what he could do to the chumps once he got his hands on that code.
Ian Keith, Tyrone Power
Stan, however, is shown to us to be just as susceptible to a well-turned con as any rube. Pressured into sharing the code, Zeena consults her Tarot cards before making a decision. The cards show success for Stan but danger for Pete. Zeena decides to keep the code as her safety net. Desperate to change her mind, Stan finagles Pete into a position where the poor man loses his life. Yet prior to his demise Pete works the magic of his spiel on Stan, touching on his vulnerabilities. After Pete's death, Stan is haunted by the Tarot reading. Can he bluff his way beyond these fears?
Coleen Gray, Tyrone Power
Coleen Gray plays Molly, a pretty young woman who works an act with the hulking Bruno played by Mike Mazurki. She's a friend to everyone, and sweet on Stan. She has been helping Zeena teach Stan the code after Pete's death. Stan has taken to the act as if born to it and he also proves an asset to the carnival when he bamboozles a local sheriff played by James Burke who had intended to shut them down. High on this successful proof of his brains and ability, Stan spends the evening with a willing Molly. When the rest of the troupe, especially Zeena and Bruno realize what has occurred, marriage is forced upon the couple. Stan realizes this can be turned to his advantage as Molly is comely and knows the code. When next we see the couple they are on top of the world performing in a top-flight Chicago night club. They are raking it in and they are stars, but it is not enough for Stan.
Helen Walker, Tyrone Power
Stan sees a way to make the suckers pay by using the spirituality that was beaten into him in an orphanage. He no longer does the phony mind-reading bit alone but has begun to receive messages from the beyond. His success catches the eye of a quasi-psychiatrist, Lillith Ritter played with a calculating precision by Helen Walker. She records the innermost thoughts of her well-heeled patients and with Stan's reputation as a seer, they begin soaking the saps. Stan even falls for Lillith's own brand of the racket by revealing too much of his inner life.
The biggest con of his life to this point is so close to fruition. Taylor Holmes as a millionaire seeking his lost love is willing to back a tabernacle to Stan, the conduit to the other world. All he requires is physical proof of Stan's abilities. Stan convinces Molly to portray the spirit of the dead woman despite her fears. Molly fears for Stan's soul in his use of spirituality and she is shaken by the faith of the rich, lonely man. Molly breaks down during her act and Stan's perfidy is revealed. He leaves town a broken wretch without even the money he was supposed to have split with Lillith. Yes, the great Stanton Carlisle had been played by an expert.
Tyrone Power, Roy Roberts
It is a quick downward spiral for Stan on his own among the hoboes and drunks who are now his kindred spirits. He can't get a job as a mentalist but one carnival owner offers him a position that ages ago would have repulsed Stanton Carlisle. Stan can be the carny geek. He'll be given a bottle a day to keep him going and a place to sleep it off at night. All he has to do is perform grotesque acts to draw the crowds. Stan accepts that this is now his lot in life, but like others before him breaks down hysterically under the shame and pressure.
Stan stole from Zeena the monetary value she had in the code and the piece of her heart and soul that belonged to Pete. Lillith stole from Stan his money, his success, and the part of him that was smarter than the chumps. The only thing Stan had that was worthwhile was Molly's love, and that he didn't steal; it was freely given.
The film attempts to leave the audience with hope. Molly has found Stan and is determined to help him. Tyrone Power's performance as Stanton Carlisle, a complicated mix of pride and helplessness, ambition and defeat leaves us with the disquieting thought that there is no return for this homme fatale of film noir.