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Murder Slim Review: NIGHTMARE ALLEY

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If THE LEMON feels a great book that is annoyingly hard to get hold of, then William Lindsay Gresham's NIGHTMARE ALLEY really took the cake. Usually costing hundreds - something a thousand-plus - noir fans would lust after a copy of it. Thankfully, the book was finally re-released in April 2010 on NYRB Classics. Make sure to check it out... because NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a must read. Charting Gresham's own experiences from his youth around the sideshow/carnival scene, it's an authentic vision of that world. It also features some great, almost psychotic descriptions that bring the sideshows to life.

Yet, in honing some of the material, the movie of NIGHTMARE ALLEY is even more than a must-see. It's a classic. Up there with TOUCH OF EVIL, BLAST OF SILENCE, IN A LONELY PLACE, THE THIRD MAN, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. It's a movie that will teach you where the term "geek" originated... and - leading off from that - it features one of the bleakest noir endings.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY was actually optioned within a couple of years of its initial release by Tyrone Power. Power was eager to get away from always playing the swashbuckling hero and wanted to sink his teeth into an anti-hero. The book was also a decent seller, and Power was a big fan.

Power is brilliant in the role, as the shady carnival conman Stanton Carlisle. Stanton starts by training as a mind-reader, eventually forging an act with his female assistant. Using a verbal code, he can figure out what people are holding up even though he's blindfolded. A watch. A wallet. It's subtle stuff... down to the way his assistant changes the tone of her voice. The convolution of the code makes it magic in itself... we could never have the dedication to do this stuff.

But the power soon goes to Stanton's head. He becomes harder to be around, and more eager to score a big paycheck. He pushes further... this time masquerading as a medium. In doing this, he can con big-time rich folks desperate to speak to dead loved ones. A natty move in the film is that Tyrone Power manages to still maintain desperation in Stanton despite his greed... much more so than the book where Stanton becomes both greedy and pure evil. Nice to see Mike Mazurki (Moose from FAREWELL, MY LOVELY) pop up too, playing the strong man. Mazurki is great again as a tough guy with a weird vulnerability. Again, he's like an early version of Rocky Balboa, dim but strangely loveable.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY is also beautifully shot. Goulding was a jobbing director, a technician who worked across a bunch of genres. The classy look is possibly down to Lee Garmes, the cinematographer on SCARFACE, THE PARADINE CASE and a number of other good-looking movies. Like Gregg Toland, Garmes is an unsung hero.

Mirroring the book, the NIGHTMARE ALLEY movie was hard to get hold of for a number of years. Which is why I had to first pick it up on the 60 SECONDS TO LIVE website. But it's now been released in a lavish Masters Of Cinema release. Masters Of Cinema are the UK version of the Criterion Collection, and it's worth shelling out a little extra to get their classy treatment of the film. If the fifteen quid stings a little in an era of ridiculously cheap DVDs, imagine shelling out $3000 for the book just before it was re-released.... And, trust us, if you're a noir fan it'll be one of the best investments you'll make

Review by Steve Hussy