Nightmare Alley, and a few more movies

#200  [archive]

Nightmare Alley (1947)
Streaming free

I am tempted to simply write, "This frickin' rocks," because what else can be said? 

Tyrone Power (The Razor's Edge, Witness for the Prosecution) stars as Stan Carlisle, a rookie charlatan at a carnival sideshow. He's a quick learner, though, slyly swiping tricks and better swindles from others in the circus.

His romances seem to be swindles as well. This guy Carlisle can slippery-talk a tough cop into walking away without even writing a ticket. He's a delightfully reprehensible guy, climbing the ladder of slime, where the steps get shakier toward the top.

Power is terrific at being awful. Coleen Gray has a rote role as his sugary sweet love interest/wife/conscience. Helen Walker (The Big Combo, Call Northside 777) plays a psychologist, who sees through Carlisle's flimflam because her profession is flimflammery as well. Joan Blondell (a favorite of mine from the silent era to TV's Here Come the Brides) has a meaty role as Mademoiselle Zeena, a mind reader who knows she's a con act but still she's superstitious.

Two-thirds of the way through and out of nowhere, God comes into the storyline in a way that might be preachy, but nah, it's just another con.

"You're a perfectly normal human being — selfish and ruthless when you want something, kind and generous when you've got it."

Directed by Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, Of Human Bondage, The Razor's Edge), filmed by Lee Garmes (The Desperate Hours, Detective Story, Scarface, Shanghai Express), and based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, who in 1962 checked in again at the hotel where he'd written the book, and killed himself.

Nightmare Alley celebrates the sordid, and implies everything it can't show, making this quite ribald and tawdry for the 1940s. It would make a good double feature with Freaks, but this one's much softer, less repulsive, without showing any physical deformities that I recall, only freaks of character.

Verdict: YES, and if it had ended about four minutes before it ended, it would've been a BIG YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Invader (1991)

"America, I want to fuck you, I want to scare you, I want to love you, I want to fear you."

The opening credits brag that this is "A Very Big Motion Pictures Corporation of America production," and then lists nobody I've ever heard of on either side of the camera.

The show gets underway with an unexplained gunfight in the woods, ending with a fatal flaming science fiction light-ball from the sky that ignites some poor schmuck's face afire. Four minutes into Invader, clearly, this is quality schlock.

Frank McCall is a top reporter for a bottom-feeding newspaper, with headlines about two-headed dogs (they're working on three) and celebrity boinkings and breakups. Sensing a scoop, he sneaks onto an Air Force base, finds a top-secret plane, gets caught, maybe gets brainwashed. Typical stuff, but done energetically.

Seems space aliens have inhabited an American military officer's body, so the officer's given himself a promotion, the better to execute his plan —  to trigger World War III, and then oversee the rebuilding of the American military-industrial complex.

The alien quotes Casablanca, and recognizes America as the world's superdooperpower, but it doesn't want to take over the world so much as join the winning team. "I am America incarnate — fighting flesh."

It's fun, and there's stop-motion animation, and the score seems to riff on "The USAF Song" (Off we go, into the wild blue yonder…").

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

John Wick (2014)

From what I've read, the John Wick franchise stars Keanu Reeves as some kind of super-assassin. I don't even like ordinary assassins, so I had no interest in this when it came out. Always liked Reeves, though, so several years later, after John Wick: Chapter 2 came out to rave reviews, I decided to watch the original.

In the first few minutes, our Mr Wick is mourning his wife, dead of some disease. When Wick gets home from the funeral, there's a delivery — a puppy, sent as a gift pre-arranged by his dying wife before she croaked. Wick and the beagle have bonded by the next morning.

So immediately of course, some Russian bad guys come to Wick's home, beat him up, and kill the dog. That's when I said fuck this shit, and turned the movie off.

Since then there's been John Wick: Chapter 3 and John Wick: Chapter 4, both received with high praise, so OK, let's give the original John Wick a second chance.

As he kills dozens of people in avenging that dog's death, it's eventually revealed that there are other assassins like Wick, and they have a society, even an economy of their own. Wick stays at an assassin hotel, where killers are welcome but forbidden to kill on the premises. He and the other assassins earn and spend assassin coinage, go to assassin bars and assassin churches, have assassin friends and hold assassin grudges. Huge numbers of people know who Wick is and what he does for a living, and even the lowest-ranking local cops know he's an assassin, and give him the deference they'd give the Mayor.

It's all preposterous, even by the ordinary preposterous rules of action movies. It's an in-joke mockery of action movies, maybe.

Maybe not. Either way, it's more over the top and through the ceiling than Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and I'm Augustus Gloop for this stuff when it's done right.

Of course, all these bloody killers make the same stupid mistakes as in every action movie — they talk when they should be killing, punch when they should be shootin', and Wick himself shows ill-advised mercy to the pretty lady assassin. 

When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

I'm a few years late, but now I'm kinda looking forward to John Wick: Chapter 2.

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Risky Business (1983)

Smothered (2002)

Special Bulletin (1983) 

Squirm (1976) 

Stephen Fry in America (2008)

The Time Traveler's Wife (2009)

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

... plus occasional schlock and surprises 

    • • • And then • • •

A Better Tomorrow (1996)

A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990)

A Night in Casablanca (1946) 

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

The Bat People (1974) 

The Beatles: Get Back (2021) 

Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)

Brainwaves (1983) 

The Card Counter (2021) 

Cellular (2004)  

The Celluloid Closet (1996)

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)

Dark Star (1974)

The Day My Parents Became Cool (2009) 

The Decline of Western Civilization (1980) 

Downsizing (2017)

Frankenhooker (1990) 

The General (1926) 

Get Shorty (1995)

The Gorilla (1939)

The Green Girl (2014)

Hiroshima (1953)

Hugo (2011) 

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

The Internet's Own Boy (2014)

Kids in the Hall (debut episode; 1988)  

Kids in the Hall (reunion debut episode; 2022) 

The Killing of America (1981) 

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)  

Line of Duty (debut episode; 2012)

Love Happy (1950)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Man Who Thought Life (1969)

The Man with Nine Lives (1940)

The Manhattan Project (1996) 

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

Not Wanted (1949)

Nothing But a Man (1964) 

Phone Booth (2002)

PickAxe (1999)

Poison (1990)

Popeye (1980)

Reflections of Evil (2002)

Revelations (1993)

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

Romper Stomper (1992)

Room Service (1938) 

Same Kind of Different as Me (2017) 

Saved! (2004)

Scared to Death (1947) 

Secret Weapons (1985) 

The Shooting (1966)

The Soloist (2009) 

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Street of Crocodiles (1986)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Taken for a Ride (1996)

The Train (1964)

Truck Turner (1974)

Welcome to New Orleans (2006)

Who Farted? (2019) 

Who's That Girl? (1987) 

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

 Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
← PREVIOUS          NEXT →


  1. Usually I agree with you if I've seen the movie, and find something new to watch if I haven't. Today maybe something for you? There was a good remake surpoisingly, a few years ago if you didn't see it.

    1. I am guessing you mean Nightmare Alley? Color me skeptical.

    2. Hate Del Toro's remake - too glossy, fussy, designed (like all his crap films). Yeah, it's truer to the book (ending especially) but the original flick is much better. And no one in the remake is as compelling as Power or the *amazing* Helen Walker.

    3. Helen Walker: YES.

      Del Toro: I've seen only Cronos (unremembered), Hellboy (OK), and his universally acclaimed Pan's Labyrinth (white-hot hated it).

    4. Yeah, Pan's Labia-rinse is terrible. Del Toro really annoys me.

      I can name a dozen films about the Spanish civil war / that era that are 100% better.

      Victor Erice (Spirit of the Beehive), Carlos Saura (Cria Cuervos, Ana and the Wolves), Serrador (Who Can Kill a Child?), Villaronga (In a Glass Cage), Bunuel, etc.

    5. I've seen four out of five of those, I think, and I was looking at In a Glass Cage only a few days ago, deciding whether I wanted to watch it. Should I? It seems like a pick-me-upper.

    6. In a Glass Cage is in my top ten "horror" films, but I don't really have a solid definition of what constitutes "horror"... my list also includes Jack Hill's Spider Baby, Zulawski's Possession, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure, Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, etc.

      Anyhow, it's not really bodily explicit, the horror is almost entirely the milieu, the psychology, the allegory... I know, sounds pretentious. But it's amazingly unsettling, even more than something like Salo. And it's stunning to look at, as sumptuously photographed as David Lynch's best work.

    7. Grazi. Too long since I've seen Dead Ringers, and I'll try the others too, but you know subtitles can be a bitch...


🚨🚨 If you have problems posting a comment, please click here for help. 🚨🚨