There is something sordid about the atmosphere of a small-time, small-town carnival. Comedians trapped in tragic roles. The performers may be under the limelight, but it is the dim light of a would-be only in hope, because they are always on the way towards something bigger but are often left bitter beyond any hope of achieving it. But they also seem to know more about fame and success than those who have achieved it: the ephemerality of it all.
“Stan Carlisle fascinated me. He was such an unmitigated heel. Here was a chance to create a character different from any I had ever played before.” Tyrone Power was the one who wanted to make Nightmare Alley, based on the 1946 book by William Lindsay Gresham, and he acquired the rights to the novel. He wanted to subvert his matinee-idol image and he sank his teeth into it, with merciless force. It is the story of the rise and fall of a man from small-time carnival operator to spiritualist conman, from putting on a sideshow for the working class to showing off in an upper act for the rich, revealing the dark recesses of his own nature in the process. It is an unvarnished portrayal of moral degradation and self-destruction, a largely pessimistic vision of the American dream, “where to become successful you must prey on the weaknesses of others,” writes Paul Duncan in Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favorites. “As Carlisle rises from hick to ace charlatan and crashes to become a ‘geek’, a creature that gets tearing the heads off live chickens in a bran-pit, we see a frightening glimpse of life without money or hope in a society that lives by both,” Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg observed in their 1968 essay, “Noir Cinema”, republished in the book Film Noir Compendium.
There is always a woman by Stanton’s side on his way up – in the book, there was no one by his side on his downward spiral, no good girl “redeemer”, the other female image that appears in noir films, and I will pretend the ending of Edmund Goulding’s film didn’t detach itself from the uncompromising force of Gresham’s novel, which would have been possible in the absence of the Hays Code but highly improbable because of filmmakers’ ardent dependence on the studios. First it’s Zeena, a worldly and hefty sideshow fortune teller who reveals to Stan the word codes for the mentalist act. There is a human “every woman” quality to her, with something good and something bad in her, earnest yet capable of duplicitous behaviour. Then it’s the young and warm-hearted Molly (Colleen Fray), the good girl, who becomes his partner in the entertaining act as well as in life. And then it’s Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist willing to betray her patients’ darkest secrets to become Stan’s accomplice. Dr. Lilith is his match. Played with ice-cold perfection by Helen Walker, “huge-eyed, sly as a cat, Dr. Ritter’s gestures suggest a soulless ambition; the web of hair, the smoothly disciplined face are unforgettable”, wrote Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg.
Nowhere is Dr. Ritter’s sexual allure and superior psychological insight (the two most covert and elusive weapons of the femme fatale) more obvious than in their meeting in her office, him standing up, her siting down, him in a striped suit, white shirt and black tie, her in a suit jacket and white buttoned-down shirt, with its sleeve cuffs peeking from under the jacket sleeves, and neckertie pinned with a brooch. Bonnie Cashin was the costume designer. She had begun her career in New York in the 1930s, as a designer at the Roxy Theater, while also designing clothes for a sports manufacturer. In 1943, she was invited to work at Twentieth Century Fox, and one of her early assignments was Laura (1944), starring Gene Tierney. Her clothes for the character of Laura contrasted the over-dressing of the America of the 1940s, something Cashin wanted to avoid so that the clothes in the film wouldn’t look too dated, too soon. She had her mind set on the modern woman.
At first, you could swear Dr. Ritter is wearing a tuxedo. She is not, it’s a skirt she is wearing with her jacket, but somehow, surprisingly, this makes her look even more striking and empowering, its somber shade the epitome of formality. That particular scene is lit in a way that casts shadows on the wall resembling prison bars. The world of film noir is usually a world where love is replaced by obsessions and fatal desires. This time, it is replaced by a hopeless addiction to hell-bent success and the one woman who can mitigate it better and faster than anyone else. Her treachery seems better disguised when Stanton pays her a visit by surprise and she is wearing her hair loose; and loose she wears her pussy-cat bow, too, of her lounging gown. When they meet again on the pier, for the last time, she is again buttoned-up in her trench coat, forever crystallising the image of the unabashedly unruly femme fatale.
That sense of Stanton feeling trapped, in his own doomed destiny, was felt earlier in the film, too, during his carnival days, when he was plotting with Zeena. As they are shown observing the crowd from the back stage, there is a spotlight on the two of them and everything else around them remains in the dark. He is making plans, but the look in his eye is not overshadowed just by the camera play with light. It is however the dramatic lighting that makes his striped jacket, the costume for his act, look like a jail jacket.
Those days he was usually wearing a simple white t-shirt, and often just his tank top. It was before the plain t-shirt was transformed from underwear item into a symbol of rebellion and youth and deemed acceptable on screen to expose more of a male’s body when Marlon Brando wore his as an outer garment in A Streetcar Named Desire, freeing the fifties from buttoned-up mentalities and clothes. Stanton attracts the eyes of Zeena and Molly, but the t-shirt doesn’t necessarily imply that it is meant to be indicative of a certain hyper-masculine physique or virility. His t-shirt is no more than a humble piece of undershirt and he is wearing one because it’s a cheap garment, he doesn’t have anything else to wear when it’s too hot or when he needs to take his jacket off so that he can use his arms freely as he performs the carnival chores.
When he finds success, he is wearing a suit. And it must be a bespoke suit, because that’s the height of men’s style, and Stan’s suit is the apogee of his evolution. In its dark portrait of the American dream, the film charts the rise and fall of the man who climbs the ladder of social mobility, the transition point being most poignantly marked by the acquisition of a different kind of wardrobe. From the nondescript tank top and t-shirt clothing to the impeccable suit, his continuing rise is finally complete with the dinner suit, when he reaches the height of his powers. But if the tuxedo, despite its being the most elegant and expensive item in a man’s wardrobe, also has a pre-defined role here (as it represents his entertaining costume), then the bespoke striped suit, completed with the most refined details (like a white pocket square and a white carnation), makes a much more individual statement. His new-found power is put on display, just like the erosion of his conscience and downfall will be displayed through his wrinkled, worn-off, humble clothes and his plebeian flat cap when he sinks to his lowest low.
I am curious to see how free a reign Guillermo del Toro will have with his adaptation of Gresham’s novel, set to be released at the end of this year.
This piece is published courtesy of classiq.me