Review: Nightmare Alley (1947)

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Tyrone Power was a handsome fellow and it led to a meteoric rise among Hollywood’s elite. But as often is the case, a pretty face can be your undoing as people only see a movie idol and not an actor. Daryl Zanuck for one saw one of his biggest box office draws in Tyrone Power and he was protective of that image even after coming back from the war.

However, to his credit, in Nightmare Alley Power persistently went after a role that put his talents on full display by wickedly subverting his longheld screen persona. Zanuck was undoubtedly horrified by the results and pulled the picture out of circulation as quickly as he possibly could while giving it little publicity. And yet thank goodness this picture remains today — a testament to the peculiar oddities that managed to come out of Hollywood — for one an A-list picture where one of the biggest names in the business plays an opportunistic sleazebag.

Stan Carlisle (Power) is an up-and-comer in a trashy traveling carnival that brings in the hordes of local yokums through sleight of hand, mysticism, and outright exploitation. One of their biggest acts is the dubiously named “Geek” show while Stan does his bit with “Madame Zeena” (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic has-been husband.

Meanwhile, the young man’s charismatic qualities aid him in talking up hick sheriffs trying to close down the establishment and run them out of town. He seamlessly spouts off the gospel he learned in an orphanage to captivate his audience noting foxily, “Boy how I went for salvation. It’s kind of handy when you’re in a jam.” He can spin just about anything to get what he wants.

Though Pete is all dried up, Zeena still has it and the ever-industrious Stan convinces her to teach him the secret code that they used to utilize in the old days to completely captivate the crowds with feats of extrasensory perception. Ever the carnival showman he soon rebrands himself as a mentalist extraordinaire “The Great Stanton” taking his adoring carnival cohort Molly (Coleen Gray) along with him following a shotgun wedding demanded by the resident strongman (Mike Mazurksy). Zeena and the other carnival nobodies get left behind without a note of gratitude.

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There are innumerable intricacies found throughout Nightmare Alley but the overarching themes revolve around the three women in Stan’s life who ultimately shape his existence. Zeena is the veteran who gets him his foot up while her deck of tarot cards including a hangman remain a harbinger of future misgivings.

Only now do I realize that Colleen Gray’s demure qualities are rather reminiscent of Joan Fontaine and she remains a textbook guardian angel figure. In later years she would devote herself to numerous charities including Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship. What so easily gets forgotten, in the midst of Power’s disingenuous portrayal, is Helen Walker as the equally unscrupulous psychoanalyst who in many ways bests him in a very unconventional femme fatale role.

However, with Molly’s assistance, they’re initially able to begin to realize his dreams of the big time where they take their shows into swankier places with more respectable audiences who they are nevertheless still able to dazzle. And yet the recurring attribute of a man such as Carlisle is that he can never be satisfied. There must always be another greater success to follow up every previous exploit.

He unwittingly finds his next access point when crossing paths with the dubious analyst named Ms. Ritter (Walker) with extensive records on numerous influential people. She and her new accomplice go in cahoots and Carlise soon realizes his next aspiration that of a spook act. But far from just being a gimmick to get money, it becomes a form of spiritual comfort to people. In many ways, it seems like he is playing with fire. He hardly knows who he is dealing with in Lillith Ritter and he keeps the entire arrangement conveniently hidden from his wife.

Instead, he tries to use her in one last payoff with Molly masquerading as the specter of an old man’s long-lost beau. But she is so unlike Stan. She cannot manipulate a man in such a way and she’s equally afraid. She confronts her husband, “You make it sound so sacred and holy when all the time it’s just a gag with you…You’re just laughing your head off at these chumps. You think God’s going to stand for that?”

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Not only is Nightmare Alley a carnival noir with the dark palette courtesy of veteran Lee Garmes but thematically, we also take a cynical nosedive into ominous even sacrilegious territory. It’s an heir apparent to such 1930s films like Blue Angel (1930), Freaks (1932), and Miracle Woman (1931). Fundamentally it charts the rise and fall of a single man who used religious clout and chicanery only to end up as an ostracized carnival commodity. He went from using others to being used because he winds up a good-for-nothing. So the story predictably comes full circle.

The film is good enough not to give us a happy ending. Yes, it cuts the dramatic arc short but that only saves us from the foregone conclusion. Molly clings to a now paranoid and wasted Stan — a shell of the whip-smart punk he used to be — promising to take care of him. Zeena made that promise before to her husband too and look what happened to him.

There was no reemergence or getting back to the way things used to be. What’s to make us think that this version will be any different? In fact, it’s probably even more haunting than actually knowing definitively what will happen because we are forced to leave the movie in the shadowy ambiguities. What isn’t ambiguous is Tyrone Power in the most duplicitous and simultaneously most devastating showing of his career.

4/5 Stars

The Black Swan (1942)

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If you make your way to this swashbuckler you’ll find a movie set in The Spanish Main as England has just brokered a peace treaty with their imperialistic competitors. As you probably already surmised, you might as well leave your textbooks on maritime history at home because there’s no need to reference them here. Actually, I stand corrected. Captain Henry Morgan was a real person. Everything else is an excuse for pillaging gold and adventure on the high seas.

As someone educated on Tintin serials (ie. The Secret of the Unicorn) and “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything,” enjoying such a picture from perennial Hollywood journeyman Henry King is hardly a chore taken for what it is.

In the opening moments, we have coastal marauders who overrun a city to loot it and run off with pretty girls. They’ve even stretched a conceited official on the wrack for good measure. Except a counterattack by the local militia ensues and soon we learn from the reformed pirate, Henry Morgan himself (Laird Cregar), things have changed.

He has been made Magistrate of Jamaica in return for his loyalty and he calls his faithful scallywags to join him in a bit of respectability on the right side of the law. His longtime right-hand man, Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), agrees to it, though some of the others led by treacherous Billy Leech (George Sanders) look to try their luck on the seas like always.

The pictures finest asset is a cast as thick as thieves. A particularly cheeky Tyrone Power is at the top his of game, looking like he’s having a swell time of it, being a bit of a dashing scoundrel right up there with Errol Flynn. Cregar is memorable yet again as the formidable blaggard with many a plume. He and “Jamie Boy” share a particularly humorous reunion when Power dumps a purportedly unconscious Maureen O’Hara like a sack of potatoes to give his old buddy, Captain Morgan, a warm welcome.

Meanwhile, George Sanders is almost unrecognizable as a mangy red beard. It’s one of those makeover jobs where you have to do a double take to try and differentiate that familiar voice hiding behind a very unfamiliar visage.

Following up his villainous turn opposite Power in Son of Fury (1942), Sanders is back and even better. Though not seemingly the athletic type or a swordsman for that matter, he lends the right amount of licentiousness and folly to his turn as Captain Leech.

Thomas Mitchell, a man who could play a character part in his sleep, colors in his role as the quintessential boisterous, bandanna-wearing sea hand who’s right by Jamie’s side whenever he’s needed. There’s even Anthony Quinn with an eye patch, though woefully underused and Maureen O’Hara, the most desirable “wench” there ever was on the Caribbean, as our only leading lady.

It must be acknowledged however the script all but wastes her talents as she hardly fits the archetype of your normative “damsel in distress” role, though her beauty in Technicolor is admittedly unsurpassed. While hampered by an unimaginative part, she still manages a few fiery exchanges with Power after his character kidnaps her as his bride-to-be and they subsequently build some kind of rapport out of the sparks in a mere scene or two.

The picture follows Jamie Boy as he scours the ocean for his old shipmate, Billy Leech, who is up to his old plundering ways, terrorizing the seas and ruining the tranquility of the two world powers. Though reformed, Morgan is under fire from a council that finds his position suspect as he was once in cahoots with the wanton criminal. The authorities at hand call for impeachment even as one among their ranks sows discord.

What else is expected except a final shootout on the seas complete with a barrage of cannons? Jamie is held prisoner by the man he was sworn to apprehend while other forces look to hang him for perceived insubordination. But Tyrone Power is more than up to the task of swinging through the yardarms to victory and getting the girl for good measure.

To this end, The Black Swan is wartime swashbuckling escapism, both fanciful and fairly lean in running time and resources. These, of course, were in part an effort toward wartime conservation but the reduced length does not keep it from being fulfilling. Perhaps it’s for the best they don’t make pictures like this anymore but, for its day, it’s an ebullient rollick worthy of the pirates within its frames. Maybe not its lady…

3.5/5 Stars

Blood and Sand (1941)

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There’s little doubt Blood and Sand was a follow up to The Mark of Zorro (1940) meant to capitalize on the lucrative romantic pairing of devilishly handsome heartthrob Tyrone Power and winsome ingenue Linda Darnell. But what it sets out to do, it achieves through an ability to capture us in a joyously Hollywood confection. It pulls out all the stops to establish Spain for the moviegoing audience. Flamenca, guitar, castanets, swirling skirts, and sashaying ladies are all present bursting forth from the screen with multicolored gaiety and merriment.

The picture in straightforward fashion charters the rise of a young boy into a renowned matador with aims at commanding the grandest stage in all of Seville. Juan Gallardo (Power), buoyed by a tight-knit band of friends and propelled by lifelong ambition, is ultimately able to realize his dreams and to garner all the laurels lavished on the man of the hour.

Most important of all, he’s finally able to marry the girl whom he’s loved since childhood, the virginal beauty Carmen Espinosa (Darnell). She has dutifully waited for his triumphant return when he serenades her with a full band and presents her a wedding dress to pronounce his everlasting love. They’re young and deliriously happy.

While initially maligned as a fifth-rate talent, now the famed purveyor of public opinion, Natalio Curro, christens Gallardo the finest matador in all the land. Laird Cregar is more than capable as the pompous bullfighting critic who relishes the spotlight as well as his reputation as a tastemaker.

Likewise, everyone wants Juan to be the godfather of their child. He is in high demand and he catches everyone’s eye. Namely, the recently returned socialite Doña Sol des Muire (Rita Hayworth) coming from irrefutably high-class stock. She has her pick of the litter and she immediately becomes diverted by this dashing matador tossing him down a red rose in return for a couple tokens of his goodwill.

Meanwhile, Carmen remains faithful by his side praying every day he enters into the ring to do his work. She dotes on him with breakfast, reading the headlines about his finest hour, and remains his constant companion.  However, the allure of the “other woman” ensnares him and his fate is all but sealed. Just as he baits the bull, she soon has him reeling much the same. But the only real person to blame is himself.

His wife is betrayed in one heart-breaking confrontation, his finances are in disarray, his temper has alienated many of his closest allies, and his success in the ring has begun to falter. None of these plot developments are unforeseen. On the contrary, we expect them. As his mother reminds him, taking cues from the Biblical parables, “One can’t build on sand.” Because everything you worked so hard to erect will just as easily come tumbling down when the downpour hits.

It’s as much his own fault is it is the fickle masses who are so unforgiving. Pretty girls like Doña just as easily move on to a new toy, this time Juan’s lifelong rival Manolo (Anthony Quinn). And of course, Curro has been quick to pronounce the new man as the latest shining comet of the new season. He fails to add that comets burn brightly only to fizzle out in a nose dive. The tragic metaphor is a little too obvious.

But again, the picture is all spectacle and it’s ultimately bolstered by lavish costumes and the early shades of Technicolor offering a seminal example of 3-strip Hollywood opulence. Rouben Mamoulian’s artistry in mise en scene from his days with the stage are on display, played out to the nth degree. The screen and the stars are easy on the eyes. The director purportedly kept cans of spray paint on hand to touch up any necessary blasé patches with enhanced color. However he achieved it, Blood and Sand generally works.

True, bullfighting always seems like a barbarous pastime even as Hollywood can’t show that much. It does feel like a modernized incarnation of gladiatorial battles.  Just as the public is petty, it’s even a little difficult to feel sorry for our protagonist, though Linda Darnell, continually surrounded by Roman Catholic imagery, remains as the last vestige of saintly virtue.  She’s never been so pure.

The same cannot be said for Rita Hayworth in her secondary role, which in itself is a rather strange circumstance since she had yet to reach the heights of her later career and pictures like Gilda (1946). Tyrone Power could coast on his looks and charisma alone and he pretty much does.

3.5/5 Stars

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

markofzorro1Madrid–when the Spanish Empire encompassed the globe and young blades were taught the fine and fashionable art of killing…

The mythology of Zorro most certainly starts with the swashbuckling silents of Douglas Fairbanks, but the character’s legacy would be carried forward into the 1940s. So much so that it even gave some inspiration to a young Bruce Wayne, along with numerous boys picking up comic books in his generation.

In all fairness, I don’t know a whole lot about director Rouben Mamoulian. I assumed his forte was costume dramas and stage production as he did do a lot on Broadway. And if that is true, The Mark of Zorro, while not seemingly the work of some creative mastermind, is invariably enjoyable. That is also to the credit of 1940s matinee idol and dashing leading man Tyrone Power. Although over his career and even in this film, he proves to be more than a handsome face. He seemed to hold his own up against Basil Rathbone when it came to swordplay and he danced between the superficial and heroic personas with relative ease. It brings to mind other such roles as Christopher Reeves in Superman (1978) for instance. That of course, brings up the need for an origin story.

markofzorro2In many ways, it feels anachronistic that Don Diego Vega makes the long voyage from Spain to Los Angeles California, but then in the 1800s Spain still had some presence on the West Coast. It’s there were Vega gives up his sword, rendezvous with his father and mother, while slowly taking on a second life. Zorro certainly has a wonderful double life going. By day a stuffy, foppish playboy fascinated with magic tricks and given to fatigue. Then, by night he dons the black mask and saber as “the fox” wholly prepared to rob from the oppressors and bring hope to the common man. He’s the Robin Hood of the Spanish settlements marking his territory with his iconic “Z” and simultaneously getting a bounty stuck on his head.

markofzorro3The corrupt tub of lard Luis Quintero pushed Vega’s father out of office with the help of his menacing right-hand man Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). On the surface, Don Diego plays into the older man’s hand, while at night he fools everyone including the local priest (Eugene Palette) with his masquerade.

Perhaps most importantly of all Zorro is able to romance the young ingenue Lolita Quintero by eventually letting her in on his little secret and taking down her nefarious uncle. But of course, everything must come down to some epic swordplay and heroics. Zorro and Pasquale eventually face on in an office sword fight that made me absolutely giddy with excitement. As he leads the revolt against the powers that be there is an obvious energy pulsing through the storyline. This is a pure cinematic action-adventure that glories in the age of swashbucklers.

True, we have a pair of tragic stars in Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. He died of a heart attack at the age of 44 and she died only a few years later at 41 years of age after a house fire. But, for the time being, they are young, vibrant, and full of life. Perfect protagonists in a film where love and justice reign supreme and heroes always conquer evil.

4/5 Stars

The Razor’s Edge (1946)

06cc8-razors_edgeAdapted from the novel by Somerset Maugham, this drama films stars Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb, and Herbert Marshall. The film opens after WW I with an air force vet who is engaged to a young socialite. They are in love and yet he wants to discover the meaning of life before he settles down. She reluctantly lets him go to Paris while she remains in the states. While Larry lives in Paris and travels to the Himalayas their childhood friend Sophie gets in a car accident which kills her husband and baby. Isabel had tried one last time to win Larry back but with that not working she decides to marry the affluent Grey instead. Soon we learn that Grey lost everything in the Crash and he had a nervous breakdown. In Paris Maugham meets his old acquaintances and Larry helps Grey with his problem. They then encounter a drunken Sophie in a Parisian night club. Larry also helps her and decides to marry her. Isabel will have none of it and she leads Sophie back into alcoholism only for us to find out later that she was murdered later on. With Elliot on his deathbed Larry also does him a favor and afterward he correctly ascertains that Isabel led Sophie to drink. He moves on content and she can only be consoled by Maugham. Some interesting questions were brought up but it doesn’t seem that Larry figured everything out completely.

4/5 Stars

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich with direction by Billy Wilder, this courtroom drama follows the trial of a man accused of murder. Laughton is an English defense attorney just recovering from a heart attack. However, soon he gets so intrigued by Power’s case that he agrees to defend him. Power’s character Vole seems to be falsely accused for the murder of a widowed woman he hardly knew. He does have an alibi in his wife (Dietrich) but she seems to refute Vole’s words and the case takes a bad turn. Through a flashback we see into their complicated past. The befuddled Laughton finally catches a break and is able to prove Dietrich is lying. He has been victorious in defending Vole but then the plot takes a cruel twist. What was reality before now seems to be completely false. Adapted from a story by Agatha Christie, this film has good characters and a brilliant climax.

4.5/5 Stars