Much like Barton Fink in its critique of the movie-making industry, Nightmare Alley is a sociological critique on the egotism found in a number of celebrities. Apart from a sub-theme of alcoholism which is pretty underdeveloped in the grand scheme of things, Edmund Goulding pursues his examination on the psyche of a famous name in a way that seems incredibly fit. Unlike Barton Fink which may very well have been influenced by Nightmare Alley, the story follows a protaganist that actually inflicts the pain on others, in a way that epitomizes an almost anti-hero construction. The Coen brothers made a film about knowing what not to get yourself into, while Edmund Goulding made one about knowing what not to let yourself become.
Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is a man just trying to get by. Through his determination for a salary, he stumbles upon a local carnival, for which he later gains an occupation. He quickly goes from being a behind the scenes worker to an acclaimed performer ---- leading him to exclusive jobs around the nation. As Stanton slowly crawls up his ladder of celebrity-level showmanship, his ego grows. He no longer is the innocent carny that only dreamed of contributing to his circus. His values of sympathy and humbleness flip on their head and subsequently bulldoze his connections with past friends, going as far as to kick one out of his flat. His personality embodies the potential that all humans carry in the face of popularity. Stanton seems more than a normal human. He thinks of himself as a god, above all people.
During Stanton's third-act endeavor, he finds himself back at the carnival, where he originally started. Out of work and out of talent, because of his now infamous ego ---- the only job he's offered is playing the geek. His life as a magician has gone full circle. His ego starts to deflate, as he now personifies the type of person that he would constantly put down. His wife, Molly (Coleen Gray), whom he essentially threw out and abandoned, is the only person that can even remotely bring him back to a fraction of his former self. The plot-point is there not only to deliver a seemingly happy ending, but to showcase that one's humbleness can inevitably return through the right treatment. When he speaks with Molly, he doesn't return to his egotistical personality, but instead to his humble and normal one. Stanton has returned to the kind of person that made him so successful, not the persona that would inevitably produce his downfall.
In the midst of this outstanding narrative, Goulding directs a distinguished and sleazy mood to his film. It's neither fast-paced nor a lazy film ---- it's right at the crossroads. It flows like a river and ends like a waterfall ---- with a powerhouse of an ending. No wonder David Lynch has gone on the record to have been influenced by this film, as the closest comparison of Nightmare Alley's pacing can be found in Lynch's films. Goulding's past work doesn’t fit with this film. His most notable, Grand Hotel ---- for which it won the Best Picture award in 1932, plays like a typical drama from that era. And so do many of his other films -----mundane films that perfectly align with whatever phase Hollywood was going through at the time. But, his 1947 film nearly revitalized his career showcasing that he could direct a film unlike anything around. What results is a film that easily stands out amongst the crowd as a masterclass in the clashing of atmosphere, theme, and narrative. A film worthy of analysis and of being added to the Criterion Collection ----- which just released last month.
Time Stamp: July 2021