Nightmare Alley (1947): Geeks and Freaks

Nightmare Alley (1947)

In Nightmare Alley (1947), based on the dark novel by William Lindsay Gresham, you enter a bizarre oneiric universe of thwarted ambition and inescapable degradation.

A world of geeks and freaks, where a predatory femme-fatale uses greed not sex to trap her prey, where the hallucinations at the bottom of an empty gin bottle transport you to hell, where illusion and reality fuse into a phantasmagoria of tarot cards and hangmen, and where both tabernacles and carnival tents mock faith and trade on gullibility.  Life is a squalid con where you can trust no one, the only solace is in booze, and redemption is as a carnival geek fed on live chickens.

Director Edmund Goulding and cinematographer Lee Garmes fashion a monstrous world of dark nights and sordid shadows.  Death and opportunism are pulled out of an illusionist’s trunk, and a fog of angst shrouds all in its wake. There are no actors here: only visages and apparitions that inhabit a shadow play where Jungian archetypes invade your subconscious.

Never was a film noir more aptly titled – the nightmare at the end of the dark alley of the soul.

Nightmare Alley (1947)

8 thoughts on “Nightmare Alley (1947): Geeks and Freaks”

  1. In his very engaging “Guide for the Film Fanatic” Danny Peary says of NIGHTMARE ALLEY: “No picture of the forties projected a more corrosive atmosphere than director Edward Goulding and scriptwriter Jules Furthman’s striking adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s grim, nasty novel……while it sweetens the novel and opts for a “Hollywood ending” the film is more daring than critics of the day contended……Lee Garmes’ noir photography turned what is essentially a strong drama into a frightening horror film…..” Peary makes some other very cogent and insightful observations in his long entry on page 300 of this volume.

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  2. Tony D’Ambra’s own take on NIGHTMARE ALLEY is “brilliance incarnate.” He says: “director Edmund Goulding and cinematographer Lee Garmes fashion a monstrous world of dark nights and sordid shadows……there are no actors here: only visages and apparitions that inhabit a shadow play where Jungian archetypes invades your subconscious. Never was a film noir more aptly titles the ‘nightmare at the end of the dark alley of the soul.’

    I am speechless. These kind of observations should be published in volumes. Fascinating stuff!

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  3. I am running around today, but I see there are several other excellent posts here, including the one on Graham Greene. I will be looking at these later today or tonite and making appropriate responses. Your latest creative output should not be missed by anyone, much less by film noir fans.

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  4. A truly sublime piece, Tony. You’ve more than done this great film justice. Beautifully articulated and compellingly reasoned. Your points are entirely on-target and I am one with you about the film presenting the audience with Jungian archetypes that invade your subconscious. Tremendous!

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  5. hahahahah Tony. Message #4 above is mine, not Allan’s. Allan, of course left #3. As Allan is here living with us for thyree weeks, he uses my PC, and the name that was still there when I left message 4 was Allan’s. LOL! Great to see Alexander’s wonderful comment too!

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