Nightmare Alley (1947) is a 20th Century Fox film noir starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, and directed by Edmund Goulding. The movie rights for the 1946 novel of the same name, written by William Lindsay Gresham, were bought by Power, who planned on starring in the film. Power wanted to expand his limited range, playing romantic swashbuckler types, by taking the unsavory lead, "The Great Stanton". It premiered in the US on October 9, 1947, then met with wide release on October 28, 1947, later having six more European releases between November 1947 to May 1954.
To make the film more believable, the producers built a full working carnival on ten acres (40,000 m²) of the 20th Century Fox back lot. They also hired over 100 sideshow attractions and carnival people to add further authenticity.
The movie follows the rise and fall of a con man — a story that begins and ends at a seedy traveling carnival. Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power) joins the carnival, working with "Mademoiselle Zeena" (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith). They were once a top-billed act, using an ingenious code to make it appear that she had extraordinary mental powers, until her (unspecified) misdeeds drove Pete to drink and reduced them to working in a third-rate outfit. Stanton learns that many people want to buy the code from Zeena for a lot of money, but she won't sell; she is saving it as a nest egg. He tries to romance Zeena into teaching it to him, but she remains faithful to her husband. One night in Texas, Stanton accidentally gives Pete the wrong bottle; he dies from drinking wood alcohol instead of moonshine. To keep her act going, she is forced to train Stanton to be her assistant.
Stanton however, prefers the company of the younger Molly (Coleen Gray). When this is found out, they are forced into a shotgun marriage by the rest of the carnies. No longer welcome, Stanton realizes this is actually a golden opportunity for him. He and his wife leave the carnival. He becomes "The Great Stanton", performing with great success in expensive nightclubs. However, he has higher ambitions. With crooked Chicago psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) providing him with information about her patients, Stan passes himself off as someone who can actually communicate with the dead. It almost works. But when he tries to swindle skeptical Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), it all comes crashing down when Molly is unable to force herself to continue the masquerade as Grindle's long-lost love. The couple leave town hurriedly; Stanton tells Molly to return to the carnival world, while he gradually sinks into alcoholism.
Finally, the fallen carny tries to get a job at another carnival, only to suffer the ultimate degradation: the only job he can get is playing the geek in a sideshow. Unable to stand his life any further, he goes berserk, but fortunately, Molly happens to work in the same carnival. Stan regains hope when he sees her again.
The New York Times review commented, "If one can take any moral value out of Nightmare Alley it would seem to be that a terrible retribution is the inevitable consequence for he who would mockingly attempt to play God. Otherwise, the experience would not be very rewarding for, despite some fine and intense acting by Mr. Power and others, this film traverses distasteful dramatic ground and only rarely does it achieve any substance as entertainment."
The Variety magazine review complimented the film's acting, noting that "Nightmare Alley is a harsh, brutal story [based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham] told with the sharp clarity of an etching ... Most vivid of these is Joan Blondell as the girl he works for the secrets of the mind-reading act. Coleen Gray is sympathetic and convincing as his steadfast wife and partner in his act and Helen Walker comes through successfully as the calculating femme who topples Power from the heights of fortune back to degradation as the geek in the carney. Ian Keith is outstanding as Blondell's drunken husband."
In a 2000 review of the film in The Village Voice, writer J. Hoberman commented, "This 1947 account of an archetypal American's rise and fall is neither a great movie nor even a classic noir but it has a great ambition to be daring and, once seen, is not easily forgotten. The movie suggested far more than it showed but what it showed, including the climactic degradation of 20th Century Fox's then-major star Tyrone Power, was remarkably sordid for so high-profile a release."