On Oct. 9, 1947, 20th-Fox unveiled director Edmund Goulding’s film noir adaptation of Nightmare Alley, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, at its New York premiere. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, titled “Nightmare Alley’ One of Year’s Best Shockers – Eerie Drama Hits Note of Realism,” is below:
A strikingly successful shocker as a novel, William Lindsay Gresham’s unusual story of a “geek,” Nightmare Alley, emerges on the screen as a study in realistic horror which might just as well be recorded now as one of the finest pictures of the year. Gripping, exciting and suspenseful, it is a grim, relentless account of a man’s degeneration.
There was nothing pleasant about the book, and the screenplay compromises only in matters of taste. The story remains tough, bitter and ironical. And because it is grimy and crude, there is a terrible fascination in watching it — a compulsion that invariably is the outstanding characteristic of these dramas about society’s outer fringe. Using this psychological factor alone as a gauge, one can predict favorable box office response to the film. The public’s susceptibility to the bizarre and the curious has been proved through the years.
However, this carnival saga is no mere horror show. It is adult in theme and equally mature in its presentation. It offers Tyrone Power in the very best performance of his career — a job that surely will take him into the Academy Award nominations next year and right now will cause the kind of comment that builds business. In the two important divisions of motion picture endeavor, box office and artistry, Nightmare Alley is resoundingly and deservedly a success.
The production by George Jessel puts him into the top brackets of Hollywood creators. His intimacy with show business in all its phases brings an authentic ring to the carnival background of the story which emphasizes its credibility.
For director Edmund Goulding the picture is a wide departure from his usual assignment and he makes the most of it — biting into the crux of the drama with broad, incisive movement. Two scenes involving prognostication from an ancient set of playing cards are masterpieces of timing and subdued hysteria.
The “geek” of Nightmare Alley is that pitiful creature of the carnival world — the wild-eyed dipso who is the half-man, half-beast. His world is the pit where he stomps and storms for the yokels amidst a pile of bones and animal carcasses. His reward is a bottle a day. How a man gets to be a “geek” is the motivating force of the plot with Power cast as a barker who climbs ruthlessly to the top after he steals a mental act from a faded carnival queen. Having tasted success he uses his talents to dupe the public into attaching spiritual values to his trickery. His straightforward wife sees this maneuver as sacrilege and exposes him.
His mental and physical retrogression follows swiftly. The next offer he gets of a job is to play the part of a “geek.” That this phase of the story is not constructed with the same meticulousness that features the detailed narrative of the spieler’s rise to fame is the single shortcoming of the scenario.
Tyrone Power makes every moment count in this persuasive portrait of a heel, subordinating, in many scenes, his own personal charm in the interests of solid characterization. Joan Blondell, colorfully cast as a carnival mind reader, reveals herself as a dramatic actress of considerable power. Coleen Gray’s simplicity of style makes her portrait of a wife a poignant, moving performance. Helen Walker does an arresting job as the phony psychologist who abets Power’s grandiose scheme.
The supporting cast is studded with interesting performances, among them those by Taylor Holmes and Mike Mazurki. Especially good is Ian Keith who dominates the opening as Blondell’s husband, a one-time headliner who is now a hopeless drunk.
Lee Garmes’ photography, with its imaginative composition, sustains the eerie mood. Equally atmospheric is the art direction by Lyle Wheeler and J. Russell Spencer [and] Cyril Mockridge’s score, under the direction of Alfred Newman, is an outstanding contribution. Barbara McLean does her typically splendid job of editing. — Staff review, originally published on Oct. 9, 1947.