1947 Alley of Nightmares: A Dark View of Class as Destiny

At the premiere of his new drama “ Alley of nightmares This month, director Guillermo del Toro told audiences he had read William Lindsa...


At the premiere of his new drama “Alley of nightmaresThis month, director Guillermo del Toro told audiences he had read William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel – the film’s official source – before seeing the classic adaptation from 1947 with Tyrone Power. But there’s no doubt that the first film had a significant influence on del Toro and Kim Morgan, who wrote the screenplay together. Their starting line comes straight from the original script, by Jules Furthman.

Like the update, version 1947 (available to stream on Criterion Channel), follows a carnival worker, Stan, hungry for higher stakes. Stan (Power, as Bradley Cooper) picks up a few tips from a failed vaudeville couple, Zeena and Pete, whose old ambitions have been reduced to a little funfair routine. Eventually, Stan runs away with a co-worker, Molly, and they begin a mentalist act targeting Chicago’s high society.

The film has long been a favorite of black repertoire programmers and festivals. But its lasting appeal is not easy to pin down.

You cannot attribute this to authorism. The director was the British Edmund Goulding (“Grand hotel”), which Andrew Sarris, in his pioneering survey of Hollywood filmmakers, “The American Cinema”, categorized as “slightly sympathetic”: “talented but uneven directors with the saving grace of simplicity.” Sarris noted that even Goulding’s best films, “Nightmare Alley” included, were seldom considered his own, and pointed out that “Grand Hotel” won the award for best picture without a nomination for director.

Sarris also called Goulding’s career “low-key and tasteful”, but “Nightmare Alley” is hardly that. In a supplement on Criterion Channel, Imogen Sara Smith, author of “In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City,” notes that Goulding may have had an unexpected affinity for the material. In private life, she says, he “had a pretty scandalous reputation,” adding that “he was fighting alcohol and drugs, and he was said to have wild bisexual orgies.”

“Nightmare Alley”, made under the restrictions of the Production Code, could never have shown anything so sordid. But it’s a dark, cynical film, and it does a good test for film noir, a category that resists clear definition. As has often been written, black is not quite a genre, mood or style. “Nightmare Alley” is not a mystery or even a thriller. But it induces a foul feeling that runs through your system like wood alcohol poisoning one of the characters. The feeling of fatalism, a black staple, is pervasive.

The original film is also not subtle in its portrayal of class as fate. From the start, it’s clear that Zeena and Pete (Joan Blondell and Ian Keith) have “already been in the big time” but returned to their natural place: an unsatisfactory life of traveling carnival work, with Zeena performing an act of mind reading while a perpetually drunk Pete provides secret assistance. A main carnival attraction – and an act that fascinates Stan – is the geek, who seems to bite the chickens’ heads. (“I don’t understand how someone can fall so low,” Stan says at the start of the film, indicating both his self-confidence and his lack of knowledge of his station.) When Stan finally meets his partner, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker, as Cate Blanchett plays in the 2021 film), it’s significant that she’s a psychologist – not just someone who understands how Stan works, but someone with money and status, which gives him a decisive advantage over Stan as an artist scam. (Blanchett’s introduction is another element that del Toro borrows more from Goulding’s film than from the text.)

While the new film takes Zeena forward on Stan, the 1947 adaptation had to be more allusive. There is a real candle in a single moment when plants of power kiss Blondell’s arm and she sends them back with a caress. But for Stan, in the 1947 version more than in the book or new movie, sex seems to be an incidental interest. “I won’t even look at another guy. Never, ”promises Molly (Coleen Gray) shortly after their marriage. But the moment she makes that promise, Stan isn’t even looking at her. He looks off screen with stars in his eyes, thinking about the money they are going to make together.

The positioning of the actors – with Power smirking sly and looking away from the prospect of a happy family life – is the kind of touch that suggests Goulding knew what he was doing. Lee Garmes’ cinematography isn’t filled with the smoky, jaw-dropping shots Garmes made for Josef von Sternberg on “Dishonored” or “Shanghai Express,” but the cluttered, tarp-filled carnival landscape offers him plenty. opportunities to bathe the actors in ominous shadows. (On rarely screened flammable nitrate films, Garmes’ images pack a particularly silvery cold.) Apart from two street shots in a taxi scene, Chicago is almost entirely evoked by the set design, dialogue and overhead projection.

Ultimately, what makes “Nightmare Alley” enduring is perhaps his suggestion that we’re all susceptible to being fooled – and maybe even wanting to be. In both films, the story continues until a point where Stan, near the bottom of a downward spiral, suddenly realizes he’s become an asshole.

While del Toro’s update adds details from the novel that wouldn’t have passed censorship in 1947 and ends with more of a punch, on a darker line (while over-elaborating many more) , the 1947 version is still the final version, leaner and meaner.

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