It seems that William Lindsay Gresham is finally getting the recognition he deserves. What follows is my essay, Geeks, Freaks & Rubes, which accompanied the British DVD of the film Nightmare Alley adapted from Gresham's novel.
Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley hit U.S. screens on October 9th, 1947, just two months after shooting had finished. Made at Twentieth Century–Fox, the project was spearheaded by the film’s star and national heart-throb, Tyrone Power, who, after returning from the war, purchased the rights to William Lindsay Gresham’s best-selling 1946 dime-store novel for $60,000, a sumptuous sum at the time. Coming from a family of actors, Power hoped the film would alter his image, turning him from the smooth romantic lead of pre-war films like The Mark of Zorro and Marie Antoinette into a post-war actor of substance. This at a time when an array of otherwise wholesome American stars were suddenly intent on exploring the dark side of life. For 1947 also saw Lawrence Tierney, already a Hollywood bad boy, in Born to Kill, Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun, and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past.
Despite the expense entailed in Twentieth Century constructing some ninety sets and renting the Patterson-Yankee carnival, reassembling it over ten acres of studio backlot, production chief Darryl Zanuck, whose only previous venture into film noir was Humberstone’s 1942 I Wake Up Screaming, never showed much interest in the project. Likewise, it would be the only film noir made by Nightmare Alley’s producer, Georgie Jessel, better known as a popular comedian-toastmaster. Jessel was interested in adapting Gresham’s novel despite never having read the book. It was on the basis of a newspaper review that Jessel suggested the book to Zanuck. At least Zanuck got through the novel, though when he did, he pronounced it unfilmable, telling Jessel it contained too much censorable material. Jessel said he was less interested in the censorable material than the plot, which he crudely characterised as a story about “a carnival barker who found he could hypnotize a few hicks, decided to become a fake spiritualist, mocked the Deity, and got punished for his impudence.” It was only because Power and Jessel were pushing so hard for the project that Zanuck reluctantly gave it the green light.
With such backing, the movie was able to attract some major Hollywood players. It was Power who urged Zanuck to hire Goulding, with whom Power had worked the previous year on the slushily mystic Razor’s Edge. A Hollywood veteran whose career stretched back to the silent era, Goulding was known for films like Grand Hotel, Dawn Patrol, Dark Victory, Of Human Bondage and a silent version of Anna Karenina starring Greta Garbo, but he’d never directed anything so grim or aesthetically interesting as Nightmare Alley. Also hired were cinematographer Lee Garmes (Shanghai Express, Zoo in Budapest, Duel in the Sun, Morocco, Scarface, Gone With the Wind) and the formidable scriptwriter Jules Furthman (Underworld, Morocco, Shanghai Express, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep). Able to handle complex material, Furthman’s brief was to put together a screenplay that would appease the Production Code office while, at the same time, do justice to the novel, not an easy task when one considers the book’s language, its explicitness and its backstories, including the neglect, if not abuse, suffered by Molly as a child, and the death of Grindle’s young sweetheart after a backstreet abortion.
Other than Power as the ambitious Stanton, and former Ziegfeld girl and studio workhorse Joan Blondell (Cry Havoc) as the maternal Zeena, most of the actors were hardly household names. Yet Coleen Gray (Kiss of Death), Helen Walker (Murder He Says) and old-timers like Julia Dean (Curse of the Cat People), Taylor Holmes (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and former Shakespearean actor, Ian Keith, are uniformly excellent. While it wasn’t unusual for an A-movie to masquerade as a B-film noir – one could point to The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity or Out of the Past – Goulding’s movie is darker than most such films. Dark not only in its view of the world, but dark, thanks to Garmes’s use of primary source lighting, in appearance, with many shots truncated by shadows and only a handful of scenes taking place in daylight.
Goulding (1891-1959) is not exactly the first director who comes to mind when thinking about film noir. Like Jessel, this would be his only venture into the genre. And like Zanuck, Goulding initially thought the book unfilmable, yet he too was entranced by its subject matter. What’s remarkable is that Goulding, a jack-of-all-trades director, whom the Los Angeles Times described as “a husky, genial extrovert who sports screaming color combinations and cracks wise in stentorian tones touched with British,” could make such a downbeat movie. Few, Power included, expected Goulding to go to such extremes. On the other hand, there was a dark side to Goulding, which included a fondness for drugs, alcohol, bisexual orgies – directed with the same care he gave to his films – voyeurism, casting-couch liaisons and gay one-night stands. Screenwriter Frederica Sagor would even say that, despite being a Christian Scientist and reading his Bible each morning, the director was nothing short of a deviant. Certainly, Nightmare Alley conveys a particular side of the director’s personality, and is doubtlessly the most personal of all his films.
Born in London, Goulding had been known as an actor’s director, having obtained career-establishing performances from Garbo, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Mary Astor and Bette Davis. It’s difficult to know if the aesthetic success of Nightmare Alley can be attributed to Goulding’s hitherto- unrealised ability to negotiate the tricky waters of film noir, or if the result had more to do with the chemistry resulting from various professionals working together on the project. Whichever, Goulding appears conversant with the genre’s vocabulary, enough to make Nightmare Alley’s apparent quirks seem premeditated or the result of Production Code compromises. Even before its release, letters of protest were arriving at the studio regarding the film’s view of religion. This prompted Code Executive Joseph Breen to dash off a series of memos to Fox, reminding the studio that breasts must be covered at all times; that there must not be any open-mouthed or lustful kissing; and that there shouldn’t be any suggestion that Stan and Molly have premarital sex, “since it would be a story of illicit sex without proper compensating moral values.” This accounts for the film’s out-of-kilter quality and gaps, which, for the most part, have to do with Stanton’s liaisons. However, Stanton’s affairs of the skin cannot account for the second and third act moving at a swifter pace than the film’s leisurely first act. Could this be because Goulding envisioned a longer and more ambitious movie, and had to cut it down to size within a relatively short post-production period? Nevertheless, in a genre in which plot is rarely paramount, such shortcomings only serve to give the film an even more noirish quality.
One wonders if Goulding and Garmes, working in the technological, if not aesthetic, shadow of Citizen Kane, might have been playing with various noir trademarks, not unlike Welles in Lady From Shanghai. Yet, according to the cinematographer, Goulding “had no idea of camera; he concentrated on the actors. He had the camera follow the actors all the time.” Still, Goulding’s staging did lead to the composition of certain shots. As Garmes said, “[Goulding] was the only director I’ve known whose actors never came in and out of a sideline of a frame. They either came in a door or down a flight of stairs or from behind a piece of furniture.” Whatever Goulding’s input, Garmes must be credited for the look of the film, particularly when it comes to his stunning and brilliantly eccentric lighting. Not just his deployment of shadows but the dark delineation of space, cramming carnival life into walkways, tents, platforms and trailers, while characters reveal themselves and their proximity to each other in a series of intimate close-ups.
What makes Nightmare Alley different from other films in the genre is not merely its bleak perspective, but its cinematic and narrative symmetry. But then this is a film adapted from what is probably the only pulp novel to be influenced by T.S. Eliot and the tarot deck. Consequently, shots and lines are repeated throughout the movie. One notes this in scenes in which the camera focuses on the back of Stan’s head, as though to convey his opacity and his vulnerability. Then there’s Pete’s speech, in which his beloved bottle becomes a crystal ball, reiterated by Stan in the film’s finale. Or Stan saying to Zeena, regarding the carnival geek, “I can’t understand how a man can get that low,” not knowing the same will be said of him. This concern with symmetry is also apparent when Zeena reads the cards, the meaning of which the hubristic but good-natured Stan can neither see nor accept. Then, after Stan and Molly’s heart-to-heart about God, which becomes the point on which the plot takes a final turn, leading to Stan’s downfall and redemption, Stan and Molly’s relationship becomes the mirror image of Pete and Zeena’s in the first act.
The ending, insisted upon by Zanuck, might offer a glimmer of hope, but it can’t dampen the sense of despair that permeates the film. Consequently, Stan’s descent into geekdom differs from the novel, in which Molly, the agent of redemption, is absent. The original ending of the film, rejected by Zanuck, was equally dark, and entailed the carnival manager asking Stan if he was up to working as a geek, after which Stan licks his lips and says, “I was born to it.” Yet no 1940s studio would have allowed a box-office star like Power to appear in a film in which there’s no possibility of redemption. Interestingly, Furthman had written an earlier draft in which Molly divorces Stan and marries strongman Bruno, but this version was rejected by the Production Code office. Presumably divorce was another taboo. Also missing is Gresham’s proletariat touch. In the novel Stan, riding the rails, meets an African-American travelling north to do some union organising. Stan gives this son of a preacher his hardboiled view of the world, saying, “What sort of God would put us here … in this stinking slaughterhouse of a world? Some guy who likes to tear the wings off flies? What use is there in living and starving and fighting the next guy for a full belly? It’s a nut house. And the biggest loonies are at the top.” Not lines that would be well-received in post-war Hollywood. Taking a safer route, Goulding simply puts a different spin on the novel’s hobo camp scene. In Gresham’s book, Stan repeats Pete’s spiel, then attacks one of the uncomprehending hoboes for kicking a dog that suddenly appears, but Goulding simplifies matters: the hoboes react to Stan’s speech and cynicism by cruelly finishing the last of his rot-gut whiskey.
Goulding’s ending might differ from the novel, but the relationship between Stan and the femme fatale, Dr Lilith Ritter, a psychologist who caters to Chicago’s troubled wealthy, remains, in spirit, roughly the same. Yet their relationship, given the genre, is somewhat unusual. Normally a film noir protagonist is driven and eventually destroyed by a carnal desire for the femme fatale, but Stan views Lilith more as a partner in crime than sexual conquest, his pursuit based on the belief that her profession is only another scam, and the realisation that she possesses information he can exploit. “Have you ever been psychoanalysed?” Lilith asks when she first meets him. “No,” Stan says, “but I saw it once in a movie mystery. A good mentalist could have straightened it all out in five minutes.” Eventually Stan supposes she might be on the level and allows Lilith to give her assessment: “I think you’re a perfectly normal human being, selfish and ruthless when you want something; generous and kindly when you’ve got it.” It’s what Stan wants to hear, never mind that her words aren’t meant to appraise him but to ensnare him in Lilith’s own well-constructed narrative.
Though they apparently have off-screen sex, Lilith remains aloof with a penchant for appearing in masculine attire, first in her office, where she wears a Sackville-West-type suit, then, later, in a trench coat and fedora, looking like a poor imitation of Alan Ladd. Reflecting her sartorial sense, she assumes the role of sexual aggressor, lighting Stan’s cigarette and inviting him for a midnight tryst. Suggesting bisexuality, and recalling Goulding’s own proclivities, Walker’s icy demeanour is reminiscent of Jean Gilley’s anti-heroine in Bernhardt’s Decoy, made a year earlier, while her clothes revive images of Marlene Dietrich in earlier von Sternberg films, not surprising since a handful of them were written by Furthman and photographed by Garmes.
In terms of perspective, Goulding’s film, though diluting Gresham’s politics, goes further than other movies released in 1947 (some thirty classic examples of film noir, including Dark Passage, The Gangster, Ride a Pink Horse, Crossfire, Lady in the Lake and Body and Soul) not only because Nightmare Alley ridicules authority – law enforcers, psychologists, industrialists – but because it refutes any notion of get-up-and-go capitalism. Consequently, Nightmare Alley can best be compared to Polonsky’s 1948 Force of Evil, for both films depict the predatory forces in the modern success story. While Polonsky uses the number’s racket as his primary metaphor, Nightmare Alley plays upon the idea that the culture is based on scams meant to exploit people’s needs. In Goulding’s film, everyone is cheating someone, whether carnies, mind-readers, psychotherapists, or wealthy businessmen. While in the communal world of the carny there exists a code of ethics largely absent in the outside world. Carnies might regard outsiders with contempt, but their trickery is small-time and for purposes of entertainment. Problems only arise for Stanton when he attempts to use such trickery to move up the economic ladder. But Stan’s take on the world is warped from the beginning. “See those yokels,” he says to Zeena,“it gives you a superior feeling. As if you were on the know, and they’re on the outside looking in.” Yet it’s ambiguous whether Nightmare Alley is saying it’s human nature to con others, or if conning someone is evidence of a corrupt culture in which, to get ahead, one must prey on the weakness of others.
Made after the war, Nightmare Alley, like Nick Ray’s They Live By Night, also released in the following year, refers to the Depression, though not without a sense of nostalgia and lost innocence. For this was an era when carnivals, fairs and proletariat outlaws were at their peak. While Nightmare Alley is harsher and less romantic than Ray’s film, both treat the Depression less as an economic event than a social condition circumscribing those within it. Unlike Ray’s characters, who find little in the way of social mobility, Stan’s rise from carny mind-reader to cult leader, only accentuates his corruptibility and the distance he has to fall.
Added to the mixture of attenuated Marxism and Freudianism is the film’s discussion of spirituality and spiritualism, both of which run counter to the genre’s economic determinism and materialist perspective. Yet Nightmare Alley’s relationship to spiritualism is also ambiguous. Despite moments when Stan and Zeena’s clairvoyance seems authentic, Carlisle insists it’s just a trick, based on a code and an understanding of human nature. If he’s right, the relevant question becomes who is tricking whom. For, in the first nightclub scene, Stan, responding to Lilith’s question, asked in the apparent hope that she will be able to expose him, seems to know the truth about Lilith’s mother. Yet the purpose of her question might not be to expose Stan, but, like her later assessment, a way of enticing him into her world.
Moreover, it’s uncertain if Lilith really pulls the “gypsy switch” on Stan, substituting $150 for $150,000. Perhaps Stan, whose crime, as someone in the final scene says, is to have “reached too high,” only thinks she has done so. Is Stan paranoid, or is Lilith messing with his mind, when she tells him he’s delusional, denies their partnership and urges him to seek hospital attention? And what about the police siren? Lilith insists that she can’t hear it, causing the already agitated Stan to flee her apartment, seek refuge in a run-down hotel, and numb himself with alcohol, his dreams of tabernacles turning into a nightmare that has no end.
Unfortunately, Nightmare Alley, upon release, would receive little in the way of marketing and distribution. The studio wasn’t prepared for such an unrelentingly dark movie. Consequently, Zanuck decided to put Fox’s marketing efforts behind another Power film, the adventure epic, Captain from Castile. Yet reviews of Nightmare Alley were generally favourable. Critic-novelist James Agee said, “Nightmare Alley would be unbearably brutal for general audiences if it were played for all the humor, cynicism and malign social observation that are implicit in it.” The New Yorker considered Goulding’s direction inadequate to the material, but Variety called the film “a harsh, brutal story told with the sharp clarity of an etching. There isn’t a sympathetic or inspiring character in the show, but the acting, direction, and production values lift the piece to the plane of gripping drama. In spots it approaches the dignity of an authentic tragedy.” Time reported that Goulding and Furthman “have seldom forgotten that the original novel they were adapting is essentially intelligent trash and they have never forgotten that on the screen pretty exciting things can be made of trash.” However one looks at it, Nightmare Alley, with its range of characters, intelligent script and unusual visual style, was prepared to be daring, and remains one of the few examples of a classic film noir still capable of shocking viewers. Once seen, Goulding’s film is not easily forgotten.
When it comes to his meteoric rise and fall, Nightmare Alley author William Lindsay Gresham (1909-1962) bears a resemblance to his fictional creation, Stanton Carlisle. Born in Baltimore, Gresham joined the communist party in 1936, travelling to Spain where he fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. There he met Doc Faraday, a medic and ex-carny. It was from Faraday that Gresham got his first inkling of carnival geeks. Addled by drink or drugs, a geek, according to Faraday, is the lowest form of carnival life, someone who is placed in a cage, where he bites the heads off chickens and snakes. But, said Faraday, geeks are not found but made, enticed by the promise of a regular supply of drugs or alcohol, and a warm place to sleep. Upon hearing Faraday talk aboutf geeks, Gresham immediately conceived the story that would become Nightmare Alley, even though it would be some five years before he would begin writing it.
Returning to New York, Gresham contracted TB, and spent two years recovering, during which time his marriage collapsed. At a low ebb, he hit the bottle and tried to hang himself, only for the rope to break, which spilled an unconscious Gresham onto the floor. He went into psychoanalysis, took a series of jobs, including magician, copywriter and editor for True Crime magazine, and began contributing stories to pulp magazines. In 1942 he married writer Joy Davidman. Still fascinated by carnivals, he began working on his novel, researching it at the Dixie Hotel near Coney Island where carnies did their drinking.
A best-seller for most of 1946, Nightmare Alley is even more unrelenting than Goulding’s movie. With overtones of Depression writers like Nathaniel West and Horace McCoy, it tapped into America’s fascination with carnivals, which, in their depiction of a strange world outside the confines of ordinary society, has formed the subject matter of novels like Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao and Robert Alter’s Carny Kill, as well as films like Tod Browning’s Freaks, Lachman’s Dante’s Inferno and, recently, the HBO series Carnivale. Having sold his novel to Hollywood, Gresham purchased a large estate north of New York City where he wrote his second novel, Limbo Tower (1949). Set in a hospital, it focuses on a Marxist, a mystic, an ex-boxer, an ex-con, a judge-industrialist, an evangelist and the nurse and doctor who care for them. Like a post-war pulp version of The Magic Mountain, Limbo Tower was as bleak as Nightmare Alley, but not nearly so successful.
Gresham’s funds began to dry up, putting a strain on his marriage, aggravated by an unshared belief that he should sleep with more than one woman. Gresham was again drinking heavily and flying into rages for little or no reason. He broke a bottle over his wife’s head and regularly smashed chairs against the pillars on the front of his house. He sought refuge in Zen, the tarot, Yoga, I Ching and Dianetics, but to no avail. Influenced by the writings of C.S. Lewis, Gresham and his wife joined the Presbyterian Church, announcing their joint conversion in articles published in a 1951 anthology. The following year, Joy, now ill, was advised to take an extended vacation. She sailed for England, leaving Gresham with her first cousin, Renée. Four months later Gresham wrote saying he and Renée had become lovers. Joy returned, divorced Gresham and returned to England where she lived with, and eventually married, her mentor, C.S. Lewis (this and her death from cancer formed the basis of the 1993 film Shadowlands). In 1953, Gresham’s Midway Monsters, an Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny was published, followed, two years later, by Houdini, The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Gresham and Renée were married in 1954, after which he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. There would be a final book, The Book of Strength: Body Building the Safe, Correct Way, published in 1962. It seemed a long way from Nightmare Alley. Discovering he had cancer, Gresham returned to the run-down Dixie Hotel where he had researched and written Nightmare Alley, registered under the name Asa Kimball and, on September 14, 1962, took his own life. The only tribute paid to him in the New York Times came from the bridge columnist.
There were others connected to the film who would be similarly marked. Edmund Goulding never recovered from the financial failure of Nightmare Alley. It was just too dark, too explicit, and too disrespectful of authority, to be a box office success. Meanwhile, the director’s private life would continue to affect him. He even believed his hedonistic pursuits had made him a target for the increasingly powerful McCarthyite witch-hunters. Meanwhile, Zanuck, who’d always disapproved of the director’s life-style, ran Goulding’s career into the ground by offering him a series of demeaning projects. Directing only six more films, none of them better than mediocre, Goulding’s decline would correspond with the rise of McCarthyism, the growing popularity of TV and the break-up of the studio system. Goulding died on Christmas Eve, 1959, while undergoing unsuccessful heart surgery.
While Ian Keith’s fall from Shakespearean actor and romantic lead to Hollywood bit player mirrored his fall in the film from mind reader to carnival drunk, Helen Walker, who plays Lilith, would face many years of misfortune. On New Year’s Eve, 1946, after picking up three hitchhiking soldiers in Palm Springs, her car hit a dividing island and turned over several times. One of the soldiers was killed, while the others were seriously injured. Walker herself suffered a broken pelvis. Though charges, based on claims that she was drunk and driving over ninety miles an hour, were brought against her, the actress was exonerated. Despite her injuries, she managed to make Nightmare Alley, as well as a handful of other noir-inspired films, including Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 and Lewis’s The Big Combo. To compound her misfortune, not long after retiring from the screen in 1955, her house burned to the ground. Diagnosed with cancer, she died in 1968, at the age of 47.
Tyrone Power would also be marked by Goulding’s film. His hope of becoming an actor of substance never materialised, though he did star in The Sun Also Rises and appeared in Witness for the Prosecution. But, for Power, it was mostly a return to film geekdom, ending in 1958 when he died of a heart attack while making Solomon and Sheba. Of all his films, he claimed Nightmare Alley was his favourite. As for the film itself, it too would be fated, becoming for many years one more lost movie, the victim of a dispute between the Gresham estate and the Jessel estate over exhibition rights. Fortunately, with the dispute finally settled, Nightmare Alley is back in circulation, enabling viewers to view and review one of the darkest films of an already dark genre.