It can sometimes get difficult to pin down whether or not a movie is a film noir. Nightmare Alley has the right kind of feel – it occurs primarily at night, has a (mostly) cynical attitude, and involves a protagonist who makes one dreadful mistake. His sense of identity and mental stability are also shaky at best. However, the film’s characters and settings are, mostly, quite atypical. Our lead is Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power), a circus tagalong who hits paydirt when he uncovers the secret code that medium Zeena (Joan Blondell) uses to fake her clairvoyancy. Stan gets help from sideshow girl Molly (Coleen Gray), who becomes his wife and beautiful assistant, and psychiatrist Lilith (Helen Walker), who feeds him information about her wealthy clients, but both of them betray them in their own ways.
The real mindfuckery Stan experiences doesn’t happen until the third act, and prior to this, Nightmare Alley seems less like a noir than a character study. We know Power can play oversized characters, but this is a juicier role for him. He gives us hints that Stan’s charming exterior, used to great effect during his performances, hides his inner fragility. We can see the cracks before he shatters. Close to the end, Power goes from horror to despair to acceptance in just a few seconds. It’s a great moment.
Power is backed by three highly capable women in this film. As the fraud who believes in her tarot cards, Blondell was well into her progression from comedian to character actor. As the “good kid”, Gray was seeing her career on the rise; she featured in this film and Kiss of Death in 1947 and Red River in 1948. As the closest woman to being a femme fatale here, Walker was trying to recover from a driving accident that saw her condemned by the public. She performs with such a sense of control and self-possession that it’s a great pity her career would soon be over.
Does Nightmare Alley qualify as a noir? The fact that it steers clear of familiar trappings and character types, and involves little direct violence, undercuts an affirmative answer. The tacked-on upbeat ending also disturbs the tone, but this wasn’t unusual for the time. It’s better, perhaps, to say that Nightmare Alley is a distinctive film – and that this makes it an easy one to recommend.