A Wink and a Con: On W.L. Gresham
Three years before Nightmare Alley was published, Gene Kelly, in DuBarry Was a Lady, proclaimed himself a rising young man. Stan Carlisle is a rising young leech. Or maybe a termite. Nightmare Alley is about how Stan eats his way through the social barriers, still in place in the 1940s, aided by the willingness to be conned that cuts through the American class strata. Gresham takes us from choked midways, so vividly depicted you can smell the crowds, to wood-paneled mansions existing in a sort of mothballed respectability, so little disturbed by their human inhabitants you're prepared to believe that there are more spirits in the house than the ones Stan concocts to con his rich patrons.
The narrative describes the arc of Stan's career, except that he winds up much lower than he started. A poisonous version of the all-American hustler, Stan is, from the moment Gresham introduces him, predatory and yet—and perhaps this is the true mark of the predator—aloof. He approaches every human, from the carnival patrons to the women he beds, with an eye toward advancing himself. A carny trying to learn every trick he can, Stan both sucks up and bides his time, waiting for the right moment to cash in on the cons he's mastered, the secrets he's squirreled away.
Gresham opens the book by landing a muffled haymaker right on the reader's chin. Stan is assisting in the geek act when the carnival owner, who's running the demonstration, announces that it's feeding time. Gresham describes what Stan sees after the live chicken is tossed into the pen: "For the first time the paint-smeared face of the geek showed some life. His bloodshot eyes were nearly closed. Stan saw his lips shape words without sound. The words were, 'You son of a bitch.'" That's the geek's realization of what he's meant to do: become a participant in his own dehumanization. Yet instead of lingering on the grisly details, Gresham pulls the focus back, describing what follows obliquely, through a drunk's mindless yells of encouragement ("Get 'at ole shicken, boy!") and a woman's scream. But there's something almost worse coming. Stan asks the carnival owner how you find a geek. "You don't find 'em. You make 'em," he says, and goes on to describe the deliberate sadism of promising a rummy his bottle and then threatening to take it away. Here's Gresham's kicker: "The crowd was coming out of the geek show, gray and listless and silent except for the drunk. Stan watched them with a strange, sweet, faraway smile on his face. It was the smile of a prisoner who had found a file in a pie." Stan has taken a compressed master class in manipulation and likes what he sees.
Nightmare Alley contrasts Stan's unerring instinct for human weakness and his willingness to exploit it with others' protective awareness of those same flaws. In the novel's early sections, Stan is sleeping with Zeena, the carnival's good-hearted fortuneteller and the wife of Pete, who is also the brains behind her act. Pete's ingenuity had him and Zeena headlining vaudeville before his boozing brought them low. But Zeena remains emotionally faithful to her husband. When Stan asks her what's going to happen to Pete, she says,
Nothing's going to happen to him. He is a sweet man, down deep. Long as he lasts I'll stick to him. If it hadn't been for Pete I'd of probably ended up in a crib house. Now I got a nice trade that'll always be in demand as long as there's a soul in the world worried about where next month's rent is coming from. I can always get along. And take Pete right along with me.
It's exactly such tough good-heartedness that Joan Blondell captures as Zeena in the 1947 film version of Nightmare Alley. Zeena's con is harmless: she pretends to divine what questions her audience has written out for her to answer, and then gives them responses so general they can fit nearly everyone's circumstance. What Stan wants from her isn't just an occasional bed mate but the code Pete worked out that will allow for showier displays of "mentalism."
The film, directed by Edmund Goulding from a script by Jules Furthman, is mostly faithful to the novel, and nowhere more so than in the opening carnival scenes. The frame is always crowded, with Tyrone Power's Stan seemingly pressed in by the crush of the people and the tents and trucks of the circus. Stan is a man straining to get out. Power had to lobby for the role (he's superb in it), and he plays moviegoers the way Stan will play his crowds when he leaves the circus behind to work as a mentalist and then spiritualist to high society. Even today, nobody goes to the movies expecting to see a leading man willingly turn himself into a bastard. Imagine, then, the postwar audience, primed to swoon over the handsome and charming Power, beginning to feel as if they have been swindled. (They might even feel revenge: by the final scenes, Power, sunken-eyed, looks like a prototype of one of George Romero's zombies.) Power comes up with one bit of business that captures Stan's essence: he manages always to look away from anyone declaring any tenderness for him. His gaze is always fixed on where he's going. And so, when he sets his sights on Molly, the sweet young girl taken in by the circus after her father's death, it's clear she's on her way to becoming his next steppingstone.