When I was around 23, I took my two nephews to a carnival in Norfolk, Virginia. I figured it would be a good time for the boys, both aged approximately nine at the time. You know—cotton candy, funnel cake, exhilarating rides, midway games, etc. And for me, personally, maybe there would be some kicks like a wild funhouse with those freaky mirrors.
We left after less than an hour and with me in a bitter mood. The staff of the fun fair were rough customers. One barker growled at me and called me a cheapskate when I declined to buy any of the goods at his stall. The guy operating the Spider laughed meanly through bad teeth when one of my nephews cried out in fright while being thrown around on the rickety ride. Most of the workers looked like they needed a bath and maybe a stay at a drying-out clinic. Needless to say, they were an unsavory bunch. It was enough to make me want to stick to treating the kids to comparatively safe and wholesome activities like mini golf when I had them for a night.
This experience was a little glimpse of the underbelly of carnival folk. If talented but troubled novelist William Lindsay Gresham (1909-62) had been alive then, he could have warned me about the characters employed by such mobile festivals. Gresham created a whole literary world of carnies with his masterful 1946 noir novel, Nightmare Alley. A year after that book was published, its story was converted into a major motion picture of the same title—one that starred Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, among others. Gresham, his novel, and the movie Nightmare Alley are all worthy of consideration. Let’s step onto the fairgrounds and see what’s there…
Gresham was a disturbed man who lived out on the fringes of society, not unlike some of the desperate characters of Nightmare Alley. The author was an alcoholic who took an interest in subjects such as carnival folk, mentalism, spiritualism, psychotherapy, and tarot cards. Within carnival life, Gresham was particularly—and morbidly—fascinated by the grotesque sideshow attraction known as “the geek”: a man driven to such desperation (usually by alcoholism) that he becomes a savage who’s willing to perform macabre acts such as biting the heads off chickens and drinking the blood just to earn the spare change needed for his next drink.
Gresham was once married to the poet Joy Davidman (Nightmare Alley is dedicated to her), who later became the wife of C.S. Lewis after Gresham’s abusive treatment caused her to divorce him. Gresham later married Davidman’s cousin but committed suicide at age 53 while suffering from cancer of the tongue.
Through Nightmare Alley—the first of only two novels he had published (he also authored a few nonfiction titles)—Gresham explored many of the subjects that interested him and dominated his life: alcoholism, the underbelly of carnival work, strife in romantic relationships, psychoanalysis, mentalism, tarot cards, etc. He investigated all of this primarily through his main character, Stanton (Stan) Carlisle. At the beginning of the tale, Stan is a mere helping hand around a carnival. But he’s an ambitious guy who wants to get to the top rungs of this corner of society.
He starts making progress by becoming romantically and professionally involved with Zeena, the world-wise yet open-hearted woman who does a mind-reading act at the show. Later, when he has become a performing mentalist in his own right, “The Great Carlisle” is teamed up—again, both amorously and in their working lives—with Molly, a pretty and comparatively sheltered young woman who used to be the “electric woman” in the traveling carny. Finally, Stan becomes connected in both ways to Dr. Lilith Ritter, an attractive psychoanalyst who is as greedy as Stan yet smarter than him.
It’s the big scam that Stan, now functioning as a mystical reverend, cooks up with the savvy lady shrink that constitutes the story’s real climax. The novel is at turns mean, sad, frightening, bizarre, disturbing, and heart-rending—and it’s pure noir. Each chapter is headed by a tarot card that gives an (often ominous) hint as to what’s coming in that segment.
The film version of Nightmare Alley started largely as a vehicle for the aforementioned Tyrone Power, who portrays Carlisle. The hunky leading man was looking for a part with some substance, and he personally bought the rights to Gresham’s novel and (barely) convinced the hesitant brass at 20th Century Fox to take on the project. Power and Fox’s higher-ups engaged in a battle during the making of the film. The studio was wary of the story’s morbid aspects and wanted to soften it some, but Power demanded that they keep the film pure and true to Gresham’s tale. Edmund Goulding (Dark Victory, 1939; The Razor’s Edge, 1946) directed, and the screenplay was contributed by Jules Furthman (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935; The Big Sleep, 1946).
Critics and audiences seemed to have been mostly confused and/or disturbed by Nightmare Alley at the time of its cinematic release. Today it is seen as a classic work of film noir, but in its time it wasn’t so well regarded. When you read Gresham’s novel and then watch the film, you might snicker a little at the idea of people finding the movie to be too dark. It’s an excellent work of film noir, but if we’re comparing its darkness to the book it’s based on—it’s rather lightweight.
Gresham’s novel is more hallucinatory than the film, more out on the edges. For example, Stan Carlisle and Lilith Ritter have a sadomasochistic relationship in the book that’s not conveyed in the movie. The pretty and sharp-witted lady psychiatrist physically overpowers The Great Carlisle in their first meeting in Gresham’s pages, and later in the story, she forces him to paint her toenails as punishment for attempting to break into her secret office files. Their set of relations remains of the dominant mistress/subservient male variety throughout.
This is not to suggest that the makers of the film should have tried to put S&M-flavored scenes on the screen in a major motion picture in 1947, but it’s an example of how the book goes to more extreme lengths than does the movie. Notwithstanding, the movie is highly effective. And while it was Power’s baby—and he is the lead actor—for me, personally, Joan Blondell as Zeena puts on the best performance. The actual carny folk Fox got to do their thing on the set adds authenticity.
If I have one gripe about the movie, it’s that Power comes off as too debonair when playing Stan Carlisle, who is much more unhinged in the novel—even when things are going well for him there. Power wanted a reprieve from his mainstream hero roles, yet half the time he still looks and talks too much like a golden-boy hero in this film.
Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.