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Nightmare Alley vs Nightmare Alley

October 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been reading a lot of classic noir fiction in recent times, as well as watching a host of noir films of the 1940s and 50s. I hadn’t heard of William Lindsay Gresham or his 1946 novel Nightmare Alley until I picked up a copy of the Pocket Essentials guide to Noir Fiction, which has put me onto a number of obscure but worthy authors. The novel was an instant success at the time of publication and was turned into a 1947 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. Instead of reading the book first and then watching the film, I had a notion to sample them side by side, watching ten minutes or so of the film and then reading a chapter or two. This worked fine for a while, except that the film ran out long before the novel. I enjoyed both, but neither are without flaws.

Tyrone Power stars as Stan “The Great Stanton” Carlilse, who starts in a local carny before deciding to try for the big-time spook racket. Power puts in a wonderful performance as the amoral confidence trickster, and he’s ably supported by Joan Blondell as the aging Zeena, also pictured here. The film also features Colleen Gray as the young starlet Molly and, my favourite, Mike Makurzi as strongman Bruno. I thought Makurzi seemed familiar – turns out he’s another strongman character in Night and the City, which is possibly my absolute favourite of the forty or so noir fictions I’ve seen. The film fascinates early on but to my mind bogs down a little in the second half as Stan perpetrates his various cons. Presumably to keep the censors happy, the film stresses the NON-religious nature of Stan’s schemes, a point of clear divergence from the novel, and there’s even a sloppy happy ending. Good, but not ideal.

The novel is a different beast altogether, far coarser and for the time far more shocking. None of the characters have much in the way of redeeming characteristics, certainly not Stan, and there’s no hint of a happy ending. Again I found certain chapters overly long or tangential, but certain passages and chapters were among the best I’ve ever read. Some are desperately bleak:

“How helpless they all looked in the ugliness of sleep. A third of life spent unconscious and corpselike. And some, the great majority, stumbled through their waking hours scarcely more awake, helpless in the face of destiny. They stumbled down a dark alley toward their deaths. They sent exploring feelers into the light and met fire and walked back into the darkness of their blind groping.”

There’s a chapter about midway through the book where Stan goes back home to visit his dying father, whom he hasn’t seen in decades, that is to my mind one of the most perfect pieces of work imaginable. The rest is a bit up and down, and it does help to have seen the film (which definitely smooths out the complexity), but it’s a worthwhile read overall. Gresham only wrote one other novel, Limbo Tower, which is apparently bleaker still. Penniless, he killed himself in 1962.

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