Thursday, October 17, 2013

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley
seen on TV @ TCM

On the final night of my summer vacation in Barcelona as part of a painting class, we had a big dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and there was this one woman in our group named Amanda who claimed she could read tea leaves. Unfortunately, I don't remember what, if any, fortunes she read into my tea leaves or anybody else's, but I do remember how fascinated everyone seemed to be just at the idea. 

Amanda was middle-aged at the time, and she always struck me as being fairly normal in the sense that she didn't dye her hair purple or spout anarchist manifestos or anything like that. She was a very pleasant woman; she could be your aunt or your neighbor or your co-worker, and while she was an artist like the rest of us, she seemed very grounded in the real world. So for her to suddenly pull this trick out of nowhere was a novelty to the rest of us for sure, but more than that, I think we wanted to believe for a moment that reading fortunes in tea leaves was possible.

I suspect this is also true of anyone in general who subscribes to the parlor tricks of so-called "mentalists." There are always gonna be people who are convinced certain supernatural forces are at work in the world based on what they think they see from mentalists, psychics, and other such people, even today, in what we laughingly think of as a more enlightened, scientific age. For many people, like Amanda and my friends from the Barcelona trip, we may know intellectually that reading tea leaves is a gag, but we were willing to play along because the idea sounds fun and slightly kitschy, but for others, they take that stuff a little more seriously.

In Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power plays a dude whose skill in making people believe he has psychic powers takes him from a small-time carnival to the inner circles of high society. One of many interesting aspects to this dynamite film is how the need to believe in the power of the mentalist is common regardless of class. It's made perfectly clear that Stan, Power's character, has no actual powers, that he's working from a pre-arranged code, yet we see him fleece the poor and the rich alike. 

Is Stan that good or are people that gullible? The film would have you believe the former, but look what happens later on when, with the help of a psychologist Stan meets during his rise, he convinces a rich old lady that he's in communion with her dead daughter, and the old lady gives him a big pile of money so that he can continue his work on a wider level. You can't tell me that that old lady wanted to believe in Stan on some level, which helps do his work for him.

This incident leads to him getting a bit of a messiah complex, and his wife/partner calls him on it in a fascinating scene where she accuses him of tempting the wrath of God by continuing to play the role of "miracle worker," even though Stan had never previously invoked God or spiritualism in his act, a fact he points out to her.

Coolest moment in the movie. Especially with her in that outfit.

While Stan is hardly blameless - indeed, he walks all over his friends in his rise to fame and fortune - I think it's also clear that his rubes, be they rich or poor, have clearly elevated him to this position through their own wants and desires. They see in him what they want to see in their own lives, even though what they see is a lie. Maybe they're aware of this, maybe they're not. Maybe it doesn't matter either way. It's a danger inherent whenever someone in a position of power lets that power corrupt him.

A brief aside about that "tempting God" point: assuming the existence of God, and also assuming all things in humanity came from Him, why should Stan worry about that when he has never explicitly invoked God in his act? Earlier in the film, Stan says that some of the rhetoric that he uses comes from reading the Bible when he was younger (he strikes me as being a secular man, possibly agnostic). One could argue that all he's doing is, in essence, applying the talents God gave him.

I should also mention the scenes in which Joan Blondell tells fortunes with her tarot cards (which she pronounces with an un-silent 'T,' tah-rot instead of tah-row). I don't know much about the tarot, but I know for sure that the "death" and the "hanged man" cards do not automatically mean literal death, as this movie would have you believe. That part kinda bugged me a bit.

Alley ends five minutes or so too late, unfortunately, with a sappy denouement that doesn't fit the dark and cynical tone of the rest of the story, not unlike similar films like Ace in the Hole and A Face in the Crowd. And poor Blondell, an underrated actress whom I love, gets relegated once again to supporting status in the story even though she's second-billed on the poster behind Power - one day I'm gonna have to write about her at greater length. Still, this is a fascinating movie with a standout performance from Power at its heart. It was unappreciated in its time, but it's acknowledged now as one for the books.

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