Nightmare Alley

Image courtesy of Criterion Collection

‘Let me tell you something, kid. In the carny you don’t ask nothing. And you’ll get told no lies.’ – Nightmare Alley

Noir afficionados, including this one, are greeting the release of director Guillermo del Toro’s film adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley with rapture. Crime fiction writer and noir scholar Megan Abbott tweeted: ‘As a lover of both the original novel and movie, @RealGDT’s sumptuous remake is irresistible…’. TCM’s Noir Alley host Eddie Muller called it ‘extremely faithful’ to the novel’s ‘world view’ and ‘truly a color film noir.’ Bonus for purists (at least those resident in Los Angeles): a black and white version of the film will have a limited theatrical release in January, according to the Deadline site. 

While I haven’t yet seen the 2021 picture, I’m a big fan of the novel and of the 1947 screen adaptation directed by Edmund Goulding, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. That version, however, traded the book’s dark ending for a ray of hope, at the insistence of studio boss Darryl Zanuck.[1] In this writer’s opinion, such a change (while not uncommon in adaptations), violates one of the cardinal rules of noir: there are no happy endings. Another is that the characters, while believing themselves to be in control of their destinies, operate in a world subject to the capricious laws of fate.

Gresham embraced—and, indeed, helped to shape—that aspect of literary noir, structuring his novel on the trump cards in the tarot deck, which he uses to introduce each chapter. He begins Nightmare Alley with an epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land: ‘Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel, And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card, Which is blank, is something he carries on his back, Which I am forbidden to see.’ To drive the point home, Gresham warns the reader by entitling the first chapter ‘The Fool’: ‘who walks in motley, with his eyes closed, over a precipice at the end of the world.’ But, like hapless noir protagonists, readers are by nature driven by hope (or else why read to the end?), rooting for the hero—or anti-hero—to triumph, for the villain to be punished, for a moving, entertaining or instructive tale. Nightmare Alley promises all of these but delivers its own funhouse version, along with a gritty tour of the noir universe of venality and lust, high hopes and low impulses, compulsion and despair, which, as readers (or voyeurs), we can safely experience from the front row.

Set in the topsy-turvy world of the carnival, Nightmare Alley is a story about a con artist who preys on people’s hopes and cashes in on their weaknesses. But carny folk aren’t all cold-hearted operators, or at least not when off duty. Some of Gresham’s cast of fortune tellers, strongmen, acrobats, geeks and freaks are sympathetic, welcoming the book’s protagonist, Stan Carlisle, when he has nowhere else to go, and showing him the proverbial ropes. At the Ten-in-One show, Stan finds a family of sorts, one that, in true grifter form, he will betray. He takes up with the show’s astrologist, Madame Zeena, who schools him in mind reading, a clairvoyant act helped along by coded questions and a shrewd knowledge of human nature, and in the arcana of the tarot. He soon outgrows her tutelage and joins forces with ingénue Molly Cahill, formerly ‘Mamzelle Electra’, and the duo take their show on the road as headliners, drawing a well-heeled society audience with a spiritualist act.

But Stan’s inner demons, including a thirst for liquor, are soon unleashed by his amorality and greed. He dumps Molly for Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist and a suitable siren for Gresham’s modernist novel. Stan thinks he’s using her to exploit her patients’ darkest secrets, but in true femme fatale fashion, she’s a hustler too, playing Stan as relentlessly as T.S. Eliot’s ‘Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,’ must have played her marks. As deftly as a carnival barker on the midway, Gresham has conjured us into his world, palming our price of admission for a ticket to guess what happens in the end. Astute observers of human nature may believe they already know. Reader, could that be you?

‘This book formerly sold for a dollar, but for today I’m going to let you have it for two bits—a quarter of a dollar. Let’s hurry it up, folks, because I know you all want to see and hear Madam Zeena, the seeress, and her act does not go on until everyone who wants one of these great books gets one. Thank you, sir. And you. Any more?’

—post by Suzanne Solomon


[1] Carl Macek et al., Film Noir : An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, 3rd ed. (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1992).

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