At A Pilgrim in Narnia, we are in the midst of the “Nightmare Alley Series,” inspired by Guillermo del Toro’s new film starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, and Toni Colette. Moving back from the star-filled screen to William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley, and its first film adaptation in 1947, we are hoping to provide some background to Gresham’s connections: his wife at the time he wrote the novel, Joy Davidman, and her relationship a few years later with C.S. Lewis. A playful series, we have been looking at these sorts of things:
- Some of my thoughts about the del Toro film teaser, reworked into a series introduction
- John Stanifer’s thoughtful review of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, “It Ain’t Hope If It’s a Lie, Stan” (which is a cool title too, I think)
- Connor Salter has written an essay worth reading for those who know Gresham’s novel (and the film adaptations) and Lewis’ late-WWII dystopia, “The Nightmare Alley of That Hideous Strength: A Look at C.S. Lewis and William Gresham”
- Because I had great difficulty finding it, I published William Lindsay Gresham’s Conversion Story, “From Communist to Christian”
- Nick Tosches’ Remarkable Introduction to William Lindsay Gresham’s Novel “Nightmare Alley”
- I am trying to pull my own thoughts together on the novel and films for a post
- Tomorrow we are holding a special Zoom event at Inkling Folk Fellowship (hosted by Joe Ricke), where John, Connor, and I will join our friends there for a video discussion: Friday, Jan 7th at 4pm Eastern (free event signup here)
As we prepare for our conversation on Inkling Folk Fellowship tomorrow night, I thought I would share some pieces on the 1947 film adaptation of Nightmare Alley from Mark Osteen’s 2014 academic study, Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream (Johns Hopkins University Press). Osteen’s essay is part of a larger project to situate film noir social, cultural, and political realities of the United States in the wake of World War II. Osteen will argue that “film noir remains a useful term with which to designate a peculiarly interrogative, deeply moral, visually adventurous and politically aware sensibility that characterized American cinema between 1944 and 1959” (28). To set up what is an argument about the cultural prophetic criticism of film noir, he uses the 1947 film Nightmare Alley to show the deep conflict that exists in how the American Dream was imagined. Nightmare Alley challenges the “dreams” and promises of American identity, upward mobility, and economic or social success.
I have selected from Osteen’s introduction where he discusses Nightmare Alley in some detail. The film and culture essay contains spoilers for readers and film-watchers, and thus makes a good reading for those who will not get to the films or novel before we discuss it (though the 1947 film is free online, linked at the bottom). The essay also works in conversation with John Stanifer’s review, Connor Salter’s essay, Nick Tosches’ thoughts on the novel, and Bill Gresham’s personal story. I have made some paragraph adjustments to the text, and the footnotes (which are all Osteen’s own thoughts) make some contrasts between the 1947 film and Gresham’s original novel.
“The Fine Lines Between Mind Reader and Geek”: Thoughts on Nightmare Alley, Film Noir, and the American Dream by Mark Osteen
Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power), the protagonist of Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley, asks this question about the geek, an abject figure on the lowest rung of the carnival hierarchy, whose chief task is to bite off the heads of chickens.[i] One of the darkest films in the noir canon, Nightmare Alley traces Carlisle’s rise from carny assistant to slick mentalist performing in chic hotels, followed by a fall into destitution, which ends as Stan, now a groveling alcoholic, is hired as a carnival geek. The answer to his question is ambiguous: Stan’s cynicism, arrogance, and greed motivate the bad choices he makes, as does his relationship with the scheming psychologist Lilith Ritter. Yet the film’s circular structure and motif of tarot cards imply that Stan was indeed “born that way”—that he always has been a geek.
Carlisle’s quest for fame is a quintessentially American tale that depicts the pursuit of happiness through individual striving, but it is an anti–Horatio Alger fable of the perils of ambition, a warning that transforming the self may also empty it of meaning. More broadly, the geek figure offers an opportunity to assess critically the American ideals of self-creation, individualism, free choice, and upward mobility. Though the geek’s pursuit of happiness is drastically attenuated—he will do anything for a drink—it nonetheless resembles those of many film noir protagonists, obsessed with a desirable goal or object—a falcon sculpture, a seductive woman, a big score—or fleeing, like Stan, from a traumatic event. Indeed, Stan Carlisle’s life evokes questions that have troubled Americans since before the nation even existed: what is the relation between personal history and present character? Is it possible to escape from one’s past? Is identity inborn or a set of masks or performances? Nightmare Alley provides one answer to the question that lies at the heart of this book: what does film noir tell us about the American Dream?
In his study of that overused but little-understood phrase, Jim Cullen lists four dreams: those of upward mobility, equality, home ownership, and the West as a symbol of undying hope, best epitomized by Hollywood (8–9). I would add to his tally the ideals of free enterprise and personal liberty. Beneath each of these values lies an enduring faith in what the Declaration of Independence calls “the pursuit of happiness,” a phrase that, Cullen proposes, “defines the American Dream, treating happiness as a concrete and realizable objective” (38). Underpinning even that goal is the ideology of individualism—the belief that personal effort enables one to determine one’s own destiny and character; throw off the fetters of history; overcome class, gender, and racial barriers; and gain wealth and prestige. The crime films made in Hollywood between 1944 and 1959 challenge these beliefs by portraying characters whose defeat or death seems fated; by dramatizing the obstacles to class mobility and racial or gender equality; by asking whether anyone—whether detective, war veteran, or homeless woman—can truly reinvent him- or herself; by questioning whether new consumer products and technologies such as fast cars really liberate us; and by raising a skeptical eyebrow at the midcentury faith in psychoanalysis and the therapeutic ethos that supports it.
Stan Carlisle’s question has been answered in two conflicting ways throughout American cultural history. One answer, perhaps best represented by Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, portrays identity as an endless process of entrepreneurial invention. Thus young Ben leaves his childhood home in Boston to make his way to Philadelphia where, in part 2, he deliberately sculpts a new self through the sedulous application of reason and industry (see 79–86). For the rest of his life he constantly remakes himself: first a printer and publisher, he becomes at different periods a musician, an inventor, a scientist, an ambassador, a military leader, and a legislator. Franklin also inserts into his life story a letter from a friend, Benjamin Vaughan, who writes that Franklin proves “how little necessary all origin is to happiness, virtue, or greatness” (72). In this archetypal American success story, one’s past is irrelevant to one’s present and future: an American can be anything he or she wishes, so long as he or she maintains resilience and curiosity. Franklin’s story is the Protestant conversion narrative—a narrative of being born again—shorn of supernatural trappings. Whatever a Franklinesque American becomes, he or she is never merely “born that way.”
Set against this model of infinite reinvention is the philosophy presented by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his influential essay “Self-Reliance.” For Emerson, a person cannot reinvent him- or herself; instead, one must discover and refine his or her true nature by looking within. Emerson holds that
“a man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages” (29).
The self must be free of fetters—on this Franklin and Emerson agree—but unlike Franklin, Emerson argues that “no man can violate his nature” (35). Self-reliance thus presumes the existence of an authentic self to be relied upon. That “aboriginal Self” cannot be escaped, for it underlies “every former state of life and circumstances, as it does underlie my present” (38, 41). Nor does mobility make a difference. Emerson writes,
“I pack my trunk, … embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from” (48)….
But self-reliance requires an aversion to conformity; it is individualist through and through. Despite their differences, then, and putting aside the nuances overlooked in this admittedly simplified distillation of the two figures’ philosophies, it is clear that the Franklinesque and Emersonian models of identity share a foundational belief in individual choice. And this agency, according to Cullen, is the “bedrock premise” that “lies at the very core of the American Dream” (10). Without self-determination there can be no dream.
But this premise also creates a problem: how to create a cohesive community composed of self-interested individuals. Cullen finds in the Puritans a balance between individualism and community that “straddles … the tension between one and many” (32); this is a balance that few noir protagonists achieve. Instead, in pursuing happiness they find themselves alienated, cast out, defeated; worse, their end seems fated, as if they have played only a minor role in engineering their own lives. As Ken Hillis comments, noir protagonists come to recognize “the difficulty—if not impossibility—of achieving modernity’s implicitly cosmopolitan promise that an individual, by dint of hard work, education, and reason, can develop a politically robust subjectivity” (4). To put it another way, film noir often paints the pursuit of happiness as a chimera and shows self-creation constrained by forces beyond individuals’ control.
If, as John Orr proposes, the noir protagonist initially believes that “America is the dreamland of opportunity, where all possibilities can be considered,” his or her story ends with an awakening into a chastening reality (160). The obstacles aren’t merely character flaws; they are features of society. Thus, as Hillis notes, when noir protagonists do reach the top, they discover that life there is “as rotten as it is at the bottom” (7). In short, social mobility is seldom possible in noir and irrelevant when it does occur. Considering these patterns, John Belton suggests that noir registers a “postwar crisis of national identity” related to the “dissolution of the myth of Jeffersonian democracy” (qtd. in Chopra-Gant 152). Noir, that is, posits an inversion of equality whereby almost everyone is equally trapped. Made during a period marked by social and political upheaval, films noir test and critique both the principles of the American Dream—individualism and self-determination, liberty, equality, upward mobility, capitalist enterprise—and their practice….
Among the many forces that converged to create the phenomenon we call noir [which Osteen outlines in his book] were 1930s gangster films. Movies such as Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface are fables of American entrepreneurship camouflaged as exposés or action thrillers. As Jack Shadoian notes, the 1930s gangster is “a paradigm of the American dream”: an immigrant who, by ruthless force of will and relentless energy, rises to the top of his “industry” but is eventually punished for the very qualities that have fueled his elevation (3). Shadoian astutely observes that gangster films expose a fundamental contradiction in the American psyche:
“It’s fine to get ahead, but it’s wrong to get ahead. It’s good to be an individual, but then you’re set apart from others.” Such films, he continues, are often “disguised parables of social mobility as a punishable deviation from one’s assigned place” (6).
In them the Franklinesque and the Emersonian visions of identity collide head-on….
Fredric Jameson has analyzed a condition he calls “seriality”: a sense that
“the uniqueness of my own experience is undermined by a secret statistical quality. Somehow I feel I am no longer central, that I am merely doing just what everybody else is doing.”
Yet “everybody else feels exactly the same way” (76; emphasis in original).
Hence, while the burgeoning consumer economy offered fungible goods as the means to happiness, it also induced further fragmentation, because those satisfactions remained private and required constant renewal. Noir diagnoses this fragmentation, demonstrating the fraudulence and ineffectuality of the therapeutic ethos as a remedy for anxiety and alienation. The pursuit of wealth, like the pursuit of mental health, is portrayed as a means of exploiting the disenfranchised or dissatisfied, of gulling the naive or impulsive with fantasies of achievement or perfection. The therapeutic ethos, as it links psychiatry to consumerism, ties both practices to American ideals of self-reinvention, class mobility, free enterprise, and the pursuit of happiness. These beliefs and associations are all displayed in Nightmare Alley, where Carlisle’s enactment of the dream of upward mobility fuses what Cullen calls “earthly goals and heavenly means” (97).
Though Stan admits to the carnival’s owner that he is fascinated by the geek (“you’re not the only one,” the owner replies; “why do you think we’ve got him in the show?”), he doesn’t understand how anyone can “get so low.” Yet he loves the carnival life—the sense that carnies are “in the know” and audiences are “on the outside looking in.” “I was made for it,” he crows to Zeena (Joan Blondell), the star of a mind-reading act. The carnival worker indeed exemplifies the mobile self: one day freakish or superhuman—geek, strong man, or “electric girl” (the role played by Molly [Coleen Gray], Stan’s soon-to-be lover)—the next day, or the next hour, a fire-eater, mentalist, or retail clerk. Never part of the masses, the carny exploits them, gives them what they want, then moves on to the next town.
Yet, as Tony Williams points out, many carnies are “one step away” from “poverty and destitution” (“Naturalist” 133). In other words, these traveling entertainers are always, in some sense, geeks. And so, Nightmare Alley implies, are their audiences, hungry for the shows’ packaged intensity to light a spark in their drab lives. Simultaneously titillated, disdainful, awestruck, and credulous, the crowds see in the carnies what they both wish and fear to be. Thus, as Zeena performs—answering questions written on cards that she never reads—the camera sits amid the crowd, shooting upward at her and Stan, who seem larger than life. But when we go backstage, we learn that Zeena’s telepathy is a trick: the cards are given to her husband, Pete (Ian Keith), who sits below the stage and feeds her their contents as she gazes into her crystal ball.
If Stan feels contempt for his audiences, Zeena resembles them: she, too, believes in cards—tarot cards. She and Stan scheme to dump Pete and start a romance and a new act using a code system (a set of verbal clues to the contents of the cards), but when the tarot predicts failure (the death card is found face down on the floor), Zeena backs out: “I can’t go against the cards.” Stan scoffs at her belief in “boob-catchers,” but he is not immune from the allure of the inexplicable. That night Pete, now a beaten alcoholic, nostalgically recalls when he was “big-time,” launches into his old act, and gives a “psychic” reading of Stan’s early life.
“I see … a boy running barefoot through the hills. … A dog is with him.”
“Yes,” Stan responds.
“His name was Gyp.” Pete breaks the spell: “stock reading. … Every boy has a dog!”
The shadowy mise-en-scène encourages us to recognize the fine lines between mind reader and geek, duper and duped.
Stan, who had earlier bought a bottle of moonshine, takes pity on the old trouper and gives it to him. But when Pete is found dead the next morning, having drunk a bottle of wood alcohol that Zeena uses in her act, Stan blames himself for giving Pete the wrong bottle, and this (possibly unconsciously deliberate) mistake, along with the geek’s howls, haunts him for the rest of the film.
Pete’s death opens the door for Stan to become Zeena’s assistant, but his big break comes when a sheriff tries to close down the carnival. Exuding a sincerity spiced with folksy references to his “Scotch blood” and blending biblical quotations and platitudes (many taken directly from William Lindsay Gresham’s searing source novel: 596–99), Stan senses that the sheriff feels unappreciated and exploits his religious beliefs to save the show.[ii] In the novel Zeena remarks, “Not much different, being a fortuneteller and a preacher”—or an alcoholic: later in the novel, Stan exults,
“They drink promises. They drink hope. And I’ve got it to hand them” (556, 599).
In the film Stan recalls learning to fake religiosity in reform school.[iii] He seems to have no religious feeling himself. But he wishes he could believe in something to help him conquer the feelings of meaninglessness and helplessness that trouble him—the recognition that humans merely stumble “down a dark alley toward their deaths” (579)—and that motivate the recurring dream of enclosure alluded to in the title (587).
In both versions Stan’s success prompts him to leave the carnival and, with Molly, begin a new, classier act as The Great Stanton, a nightclub “mentalist.” At one show a woman sends him a card asking if her mother will recover; Stan discerns that her mother is actually dead, then exchanges gazes with the woman—Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker)—to acknowledge their kinship.
And indeed, Lilith, a “consulting psychologist,” performs a function similar to Stan’s, delving into her patients’ darkest fears, doling out reassurance or advice, but most of all making them feel important. In their early scenes together Stan and Lilith are presented as two of a kind, placed at the same level of the frame in matched singles or two-shots. The power differential begins to change, however, after a visit from Zeena brings back Stan’s memories of Pete’s death; tortured by guilt and haunted by the geek’s howls, he goes to Lilith for advice. In earlier scenes Lilith had worn masculine suits and hats, a composite figure combining the parents Stan lost.[iv] In this scene, however, she wears her hair down, dons a flowing robe, and, like a forgiving mother, reassures Stan of his normality by telling him he is “selfish and ruthless when you want something; generous and kind when you’ve got it,” just like everyone else (Williams, “Naturalist” 135–36). He feels guilty, she says, only because he profited from Pete’s death. Because of her advice, Stan pledges to proceed into the “spook racket,” holding séances in which bereaved survivors contact their deceased loved ones. This is his ticket to the big time: “I was made for it,” he declares.
Through Lilith and a wealthy client, Mrs. Peabody, Stan meets Ezra Grindle, a rich industrialist who carries a burden of regret over the death of Dorrie, a girl he loved and lost. Lilith and Stan engineer a swindle whereby Stan will receive $150,000 to “recall” Dorrie and permit Grindle to speak to her again. To do so, however, Stan must persuade the reluctant Molly to perform as the dead girl.[v] Although Stan exhorts her to help him save Grindle’s soul, Molly demurs: mentalist acts are one thing, but this is “goin’ against God.” They might be struck dead for blasphemy! Stan assures her that his séances are “just another angle of show business.” When Molly threatens to walk out, he resorts to his final ploy: phony sincerity. Admitting that he’s a hustler but professing undying love for her, he persuades her to play Dorrie, complete with turn-of-the-century garb and parasol, in a scene staged for Grindle.[vi] But the trick fails when Molly, moved by Grindle’s pleas, breaks the illusion: “I can’t, not even for you!” she cries, then flees (in the novel Grindle tries to grope Molly). Exposed as a “dirty sacrilegious thief,” Stan—or at least his plan—is ruined.
No matter: he already has the 150 grand, which he retrieves from Lilith, who has been holding it for him. But Lilith turns out to be a bigger con artist than he, having replaced the roll of high denominations with one-dollar bills. When Stan tries to get the money back, she retreats into her psychologist persona and insists that he suffers from delusions. “You must regard it all as a nightmare,” she informs him. Having learned from her research that Pete’s death was “self-administered,” she coldly tells Stan that his guilt is merely a “homicidal hallucination” and that he has made a “strange transference” to her. Just in case he doesn’t get the picture, she also reminds him that she has recorded his sessions and can, if necessary, implicate him in fraud.
Confused and desperate, Stan sends Molly away: along with his money he has lost the only person who loves him; perhaps worse, he has lost the swagger that enabled his success.
His fall is as precipitous as his rise: he begins drinking heavily, moving from one seedy, dark hotel room to another, hearing the geek’s howls wherever he goes.[vii] Before long he has become a hobo giving stock readings to other derelicts in exchange for a slug of cheap liquor. Echoing Pete’s earlier words, he scoffs at his credulous listeners:
“Every boy has a beautiful old, gray-haired mother. Everybody except maybe me.”
At last he seeks work as a carnival palm reader but is told that they don’t hire boozers. On second thought, there may be a job for him—a temporary one, just until they can get “a real geek.” Stan accepts the gig:
“Mister, I was made for it.”
This is where the novel ends, but the film adds a semiredemptive epilogue (probably the work of producer Darryl F. Zanuck) in which Stan—shot amid deep shadows on the barred carnival set—goes berserk, then rushes into the arms of Molly, who happens to work in the same carnival. The film gestures toward the salvation narrative that the novel deliberately eschews. We are even given a moral, as one man, echoing Stan’s question at the film’s opening, asks
“How can a guy get so low?”
“He reached too high.”
This pat wrap-up does little to soften the disturbing tale we have witnessed and warns audiences that pursuing the American Dream may lead one down a nightmare alley.
But Stan’s fault isn’t that he reaches too high; it is that he doesn’t believe in his own greatness. Like many a performer, he is actually solitary and fearful, and the alienation that permits him to rise above the masses eventually pulls him down. He wants to feel superior to others yet dreads being different, thus exemplifying the gangster’s paradox that Shadoian outlines. Indeed, the film suggests that Stan lives out his destiny, that he has always been and always will be a geek. His “geekness” lies partly in the willingness, shared by many noir protagonists, to do anything to get what he wants. Unfortunately, however, Stan doesn’t know what he wants—or, rather, he wants conflicting things: both admiration and pity.
We do as well: watching him, we at once relish our moral superiority and identify with him, suspecting that we, too, are secretly geeks.
Carlisle is just one of the film’s objects of criticism, as it places him among gullible audiences who line up to be cheated and wealthy citizens duped by the elaborate con games called religion and psychoanalysis. Pursuing happiness through amusements or therapy, these citizens hope to fashion new identities out of consumer purchases, but their commodified selves are as bogus as the ghosts in his séances.
Yet Carlisle’s fate forcibly exposes the underside of the American Dream of upward mobility, singular achievement and fungible identity: his mobility isn’t freedom; it is merely restless appetite.
Nor does he ever have a home—the carnival being the antithesis of home—and his constant changes only bring him back where he started, to the no-place of the geek.
This nonidentity, a subhuman persona that lacks even a name, is the accursed share of the pursuit of happiness. Nightmare Alley suggests, then, that Carlisle’s decisions only push him to a destiny already ordained. His commodified identity as The Great Stanton is exposed as a hollow shell, inside of which dwells the geek. Individualism personified—caring for no one else; severed from community, lovers, and friends—Carlisle is a failed Franklin brought down by the Emersonian truth that no matter where he goes, he will meet himself—someone who is, at the core, nobody at all….
Nightmare Alley is a particularly potent challenge to the dream of upward mobility, [and] it is not an anomaly in film noir….
[i] At that time (1947) the word geek bore none of its current associations with computer engineers, their allegedly poor social skills, or their highly developed analytical powers. Yet the word’s current connotations—describing a creature at once superhuman and disabled—may derive from this earlier incarnation.
[ii] Gresham, like so many writers of the period, had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s; he later married poet Joy Davidman (to whom Nightmare Alley is dedicated). He underwent psychiatric treatment and later became a devout Christian. None of his other works achieved the success of this, his first novel. See Polito’s “Biographical Notes” in Crime Novels for further details (980–81). In an irony appropriate to his grim, deterministic tale, Gresham committed suicide in the same hotel where he wrote Nightmare Alley (Williams, “Naturalist” 137).
[iii] Because the film’s Stan is an orphan, the movie omits most of the novel’s Oedipal conflict, in which young Stan, after witnessing his mother having sex with her lover, is bought off with a toy magic set (Gresham 618–22). His magic acts automatically invoke his filial betrayal, and his guilt over this betrayal and his confused feelings about his parents make him susceptible to Lilith’s machinations.
[iv] In the novel she tells him he has imagined himself as his mother’s lover and deliberately takes the mother’s place (688). She is said to be “hooked” to him by “an invisible gold wire” (689); in the film her power is illustrated by the weblike barred shadows that surround her in her office.
[v] In the novel Grindle had impregnated Dorrie and persuaded her to have an abortion. The girl died of septicemia afterward, and Grindle has been tormented ever since. In 1947 Hollywood it was forbidden even to mention abortion, so the film cleans it up, thereby obviating Grindle’s most powerful motive.
[vi] Goulding and his director of photography, Lee Garmes, employ deep focus and fog to make the bower resemble a late nineteenth-century postcard.
[vii] . These scenes in the novel are much more gloomy and expansive, as Stan is driven crazy by violent, paranoid fantasies. Gresham implies that Stan is caught in a classic double bind: all along he has desired to be his nemesis—his mother’s lover, Mark Humphries—but once he has become him, he can do nothing but ruin him (771). While on the run, Stan also meets an African American Communist labor organizer, Frederick Douglass Scott, who is on his way to fight Grindle’s union-breaking efforts. Scott’s presence indicates Gresham’s political allegiances and, as Williams notes, signals a path that Stan “could have taken” (“Naturalist” 129; Gresham 767–76). Stan then kills a policeman whom he confuses with his father (Stan’s demons are all associated with gray stubble): this is his “own personal corpse” (781), the alter ego he both fears and inhabits. Finally, Stan shows up at a carnival, and on the novel’s last page, he is given the geek job (796).
Mark Osteen is a professor of English, chair of the English Department, and founder of the Film Studies Program at Loyola University Maryland. He is the author of several books, most recently the memoir One of Us: A Family’s Life with Autism (2010). He is the editor of Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen (2014).