Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power) works in a carnival, and compared to the jobs he's had before this beats them all as he feels so superior to the crowds who attend them, because he knows more tricks of the trade than the public ever will. He helps the fortune teller, Zeena (Joan Blondell), with her act in rounding up the suckers to have their questions answered, with them not knowing she has a system where her alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith) hides and writes out the answers for her, and Stan thinks this is great. Just one thing bothers him: this carnival has a sideshow geek...
How can one man sink so low? A carnival geek was in those days not someone with an interest in the minutiae of science fiction, but a form of freak whose speciality was biting the heads off chickens, generally regarded as the most sickening occupation that the whole world of the carnival would look down on, but nevertheless held a fascination with the public, the same sort which worries at Stan's nerves in spite of his confidence otherwise. Nightmare Alley was based on one of the most notorious dime store novels of the forties, penned by William Lindsay Gresham (Debra Winger played his estranged wife in Shadowlands), which became a pet project for both Power and director Edmund Goulding only to falter at the box office.
Perhaps fittingly for a film which dealt with such despair, it went on to be a sad reminder for both men where their careers could have gone if they'd had more of a success with it, rather than the career aberration which it was in the minds of the studios and the audiences who expected from Power in particular a lot easier watch. He did say it was his favourite role, and if nothing else set the template for stars considered to be coasting on their good looks who in a moment of ambition decided to prove their acting credentials instead of their simple, unchallenging screen charisma. This was a trick that became easier to pull off in later years than it was in 1947 when this came out, but to be fair Nightmare Alley was far more bleak than even the average film noir of the day would attempt.
In fact, in some scenes we seem to be hurtling over the brink of drama and into outright horror, so if Goulding never quite made that leap it's something that preys on the mind as you watch it: questions such as "Are we really going to see someone bite a head off a chicken?" definitely arise. Not that Stan stays in the carny setting for the whole movie, as he has ideas to take the mind reading act to scale the cliff face of stardom - and just as it's a long slog up, there's a quick way down. After using his charm to learn Zeena's tricks, he establishes a classy psychic act with carnival showgirl Molly, who he was tricked into marrying after he stole her affections from strongman Mike Mazurki. She was played by Coleen Gray, a cult actress whose following stemmed from her beauty and aura of near-spiritual purity; true to form she is the only person able to redeem Stan.
But that might not count for much when everyone else is so damaged, yearning for some kind of break or mourning that their big chance either slipped through their fingers or never crossed their paths at all. The difference between the crowds Stan starts playing to and the ones he earns a fortune with is money, sure, those rich folks at the nightclubs are more polite, but they still have that emptiness inside which makes them susceptible to his cynical fakery. It's this pitch black tone of desperation which makes you understand why Nightmare Alley never really caught on, even today when its reputation is higher than it's ever been: it tells you that you're superstitious to believe in anything that might offer succour, and that includes superstition, psychiatry and plain old love of money. Only Molly offers a sop to the morals of the day in that her love might be able to pull Stan back from the hell he ends up in, but then, we've seen Zeena and Pete. If anything, Goulding could have gone further, yet the shadows haunting the screen told you all you needed to know. Music by Cyril Mockridge.