Nightmare Alley is–or should be–a cautionary tale about the dangers of foreshadowing and being really cute about it. The end of the movie is forecast in the opening scene, then again in the third or fourth scene–hammered in for those who weren’t paying enough attention the first time. The second time key phrases are dropped to make the scene stick in memory, so it all comes up again towards the middle of the film–the inevitable conclusion. I was going to say the worst was how long it took for the film to get to that conclusion (and it takes forever), but the bad pacing isn’t the worst. The worst is what happens at the end, the surprise. The whole movie, which had been cheapening itself for the entire third act, goes all the way with the ending.
Had the film continued as well as it started, it’d be more unfortunate, but the late second act and severe third act sink make the failure a lot more palatable. The beginning–and the rest of the film really–is beautifully directed. Goulding works wonders with group shots, two shots, everything. His composition is an incredibly impressive feast for the eyes. Even the script, on the dialogue level, isn’t bad. The plot just gets more and more ludicrous. After a certain point, it begins to strain credibility as familiar characters disappear and it just gets to be scenes with Tyrone Power and Helen Walker. When it brings Coleen Gray back (she’s fantastic as Power’s suffering and supportive wife), it’s only to get the disastrous conclusion going.
Power–in what could have been his best performance, if only the character hadn’t fallen apart along with the plot–is great, as is Joan Blondell. Ian Keith is also excellent. The beginning mostly just gives the actors dialogue, plot, and room to act really well. Combined with Goudling’s direction, it makes Nightmare Alley seem as though its potential is limitless, but then the plot starts closing off possibilities, boxing in the characters and restricting the actors. Maybe it is a severe mishap after all–especially since it’s probably Gray’s biggest role and she’s so good until the script fails her.
Directed by Edmund Goulding; screenplay by Jules Furthman, based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham; director of photography, Lee Garmes; edited by Barbara McLean; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by George Jessel; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Tyrone Power (Stan Carlisle), Joan Blondell (Zeena Krumbein), Coleen Gray (Molly Carlisle), Helen Walker (Lilith Ritter), Taylor Holmes (Ezra Grindle), Mike Mazurki (Bruno) and Ian Keith (Pete Krumbein).