Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Tyrone Power Memorably Dives into Noir's Dark Alley


 With the upcoming Guillermo del Toro remake just around the corner, interest logically has  turned to one of film noir’s most trenchant and entertaining offerings, the riveting 1947 Nightmare Alley. Director Edmond Goulding sustains a great seedy atmosphere while detailing the seamy carnival world of Alley, assisted by Lee Garmes’ alternately moody and lush cinematography and an artfully-crafted script by Jules Furthman, who skillfully manages to maintain much of the seediness of the William Lindsay Gresham novel while providing work acceptable to the production code and Fox executives willing to mount a major production around the screenplay featuring their top male star, Tyrone Power. Power had returned from WWII looking for something more challenging than his standard, sometimes bland leading man heroics and, after making a deal with studio boss Darryl Zanuck to headline Fox’s big one for 1946, the florid all-star adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s bestselling The Razor’s Edge, was allowed to uncharacteristically star as downright cad Stanton Carlisle, one of the cinema’s smoothest-talking and arrogant con artists. Indicating the rich assets found in the studio system’s heyday, Fox gathered a truly top-flight cast of veterans and newcomers to add considerable verve and class to the bleak-yet-fascinating proceedings.

Tyrone Power had cemented his star status early in his Fox tenure via 1936’s Lloyds of London (watching the friendly, upbeat and colossally handsome Power turn up in a brief role near the end of the same year’s Girl’s Dormitory make it clear the emerging actor was a “buy now!” option as far as his chance for major screen stardom went), then during the next decade was the studios go-to male star in dramas, comedies and adventure films of varying quality, but mostly successful at the box-office. On the strength of hits such as In Old Chicago, The Rains Came and Jesse James, Power rose to #2 on the Quigley Poll of 1939 top ten box-office stars, and his elite status remained undiminished through the rest of his career, until his untimely death while shooting Solomon and Sheba in 1958. However, although Power occasionally showed a formidable screen presence and acting ability to match his disarming good looks (Jesse James is a high point), normally he capably performed his duties as a reliable leading man in a more standard, mellow manner.

With Alley, Power was allowed to use his nature charm and ever-evolving acting acumen to great dramatic effect, and admirably does not shy away for depicting the ambitious Stan’s selfish, egocentric nature as he rises past his carny origins. Rather, Power appears to relish playing up the most unsavory aspects of the character, such as the way Stan seems to get excited at the prospect of using others to get ahead or how, with a mega-watt smile at his disposal, he tries to fool anyone who gets near him, while laughing to himself at how easy it is to put one over on a variety of hicks. Leading men in 1947 did not do such immoral things, at least not without a wink to the audience, but there’s nary a blink in Power’s focused, uncompromising work. Although the character is not allowed to be the complete cad of the novel, Power invests plenty of starkness in the role, in the process making the cool, ruthless Stanton Carlisle one of the most indelible villains found in classic film noir (or in any classic film).

Joan Blondell, moving into character parts after starring in a string of memorable 1930’s offerings (Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Bullets or Ballots) and scoring more recently via her sublime work as Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, gained one of her best roles as Zeena, the fortune-telling carny veteran who includes Stanton in her act and sets him on the road to success. The street-smart Zeena knows the score and has been around the block, and Blondell conveys the character’s world weary yet benevolent nature as ideally as any actress could, then or now. Blondell was also an accomplished pro who could handle any type of role, and she’s vivid and true, whether depicting Zeena’s romantic nature (although sage regarding relationships, she’s gullible to Stan’s charms), humor, bitterness or, possibly most memorably, her aguish when tragedy arises and changes both Zeena’s and Stan’s destinies.

The assured Helen Walker gives her definitive screen performance as Lilith, the sleek, furtive psychologist who provides Stan with ample career opportunities and challenges. Utilizing a calm, cultured voice and a mature composure and sophistication rare in a Hollywood ingénue, Walker is mesmerizing to watch as a viewer tries to determine just exactly what Lilith’s agenda is. She and Power generate great friction in their scenes as Stan and Lilith attempt to outsmart each other, while the audience uneasily calculates whose side is the more admirable one to root for. Maintaining an element of mystery and surprise throughout, Walker’s sly, subtle work indicated a great future for the rising star, after debuting in 1942’s Lucky Jordan with Alan Ladd and matching up well with Fred MacMurray in 1945’s rambunctious Murder, He Says. Unfortunately, an auto accident shortly after the filming of Alley was completed left Walker with serious injuries and few subsequent roles, leaving her surprising, sinister work as Lilith as the chief evidence of Walker’s unique onscreen presence and skill.

Collen Gray also scores perhaps her best role as the naïve Molly, who falls for Stanton only to slowly realize her Prince Charming may not be worthy of her love. No ordinary starlet, Gray was able in invest her heroines with a natural decency and intelligence, avoiding coming across as forced or saccharine. In Alley Gray’s acting is (as usual) smart, focused and spontaneous, allowing viewers to gain insight into Molly’s thoughts as the character evolves and is faced with moral dilemmas relating to her loyalty to Stan. Molly serves as a stand-in for the ethically-sound members of the audience who would like to tell Stan a thing or two as he grows more ruthless, making Molly’s confrontation with Stan wherein she questions his unscrupulous behavior and indifference to others one of the most satisfying sequences in the film as, with simplicity and deft precision, Gray registers the conflicted Molly’s every thought. After standout work in Alley and the more successful noir Kiss of Death, the talented Gray’s stellar 1947 cinematic output boded very well for her future at 20th Century Fox and beyond. However, Fox abruptly let Gray go in 1950, and she spent the rest of the decade maintaining a lower-profile, including fine work in another pair of top-flight noirs, Kansas City Confidential and Stanley Kubrick first success, 1956’s The Killing, before gaining her most famous later-career role in 1960’s cult classic The Leech Woman. Although Gray deserved much better, her work as Molly shows what she could do when given a challenging role in first-rate material, securing a place for Gray among the roster of noir’s most prevalent “good girls.”

Of the other cast members, Ian Keith scores most impressively as Zeena’s besotted husband Pete, who once had a major act with Zeena before alcohol took its tool. Keith has a wonderful scene wherein, recounting past glories to Stan, Pete suddenly loses his jittery, deportment and majestically draws Stan in as, caught up in the moment, he tells the young upstart of his childhood roaming with a dog. It’s a brief but juicy role that could have easily been overdone, but as Pete Keith manages a fine balance between florid emotionalism and a calmer acceptance of his downtrodden circumstances with great skill and perception, and it’s rare and daring to see someone play a drunk without the slightest sense of remorse regarding the addiction- Pete loves the bottle, and Keith completely commits to this aspect of the character without a hint of regret concerning Pete's alcoholic state. Taylor Holmes is also memorable as an affluent target of Stan’s scheming, and Julia Dean has a lovely moment as Addie Peabody, yet another wealthy patron who falls for the supposedly otherworldly incite “The Great Stanton” possesses, as Stan claims to be in contact with her long-deceased daughter, and Addie is overcome by the incident.

Unlike the current film, which is generating Oscar buzz for cast and crew, Goulding’s classic was largely shunned by 1947 audiences who found the material too bizarre and dark, even with the simultaneous burgeoning success of noir themes in other films and the substantial drawing power of Power, who still found major post-war popularity via Edge, followed by Captain from Castile in the wake of Alley’s disappointing box-office returns. However, over the years the film has rightfully grown in stature, with critical reassessments increasing interest in the film, allowing for grade-A DVD and Blu-ray releases of Alley from the Fox Film Noir line and Criterion, respectfully. The original film, with its wealth of unforgettable performances and power of suggestion over the more overt depictions of unsavory events certainly to be found in the new film, prevails as a prime example of how creatively and perceptively adult themes could be shown during the classic studio era, even within the restrictions of the reigning Production Code.

Viewing the new version of West Side Story, I admired Steven Spielberg’s and Tony Kusher’s attempts to update the material in innovative ways and thought the cast put their all into the material, but I also felt compelled to defend the original’s assets in the wake of new criticism directed at the 1961 version. Specifically, although in the original Jerome Robbins-Robert Wise version numbers were filmed in a more conventional (if trend-setting in 1961) manner, with that simplicity often came a vividness that draws a viewer in, as you’re allowed to focus completely on the performers and their interactions. For example, “America” is performed on a rooftop and not all over town as in the current film. Watching the new version, I enjoyed the impressive staging and vivacity of the cast, but the immediacy I felt in the original film with the performers and the impact they made in the number, Gerige Chakiris and Rita Moreno as Bernardo and Anita foremost, weren’t as evident, and this held true for several other sequences, such as the opening of the dance at the gym (the Jets/Sharks conflict was clearer with 1961’s more direct staging) and Tony and Maria’s initial meeting- as corny as their romanticized “across a crowded room” tryst might have been in 1961, it connected with audiences. However, the trade-offs include some major assets in 2021, such as Mike Faist’s vivid, crafty interpretation of Riff (check out the ingenious way he says “knives?” when discussing the rumble with Bernardo), a beautifully-executed rumble sequence (thank you, Steven Spielberg), cinematography by frequent Spielberg colleague Janusz Kaminski that somehow evokes both classic and current cinema and, finally, the invaluable addition of Moreno as a new character, Valentina (Moreno’s little-girl vulnerability breaks your heart in her big scene singing “Somewhere,” just as it did with Moreno as Anita in 1961, particularly in her scenes after the rumble).

Rachel Zegler, armed with the voice of an angel and looks to match, is wonderful as Maria, and she holds the screen with conviction and apparent ease, justifying all the “a star is born” claims. However, I feel the need to also put in a kind word for Natalie Wood’s Maria. Yes, Wood was not of the correct racial background for the role and played some scenes in a very worked out, studied manner; however, give Wood an emotional scene, and she usually delivered in powerful, disarming fashion. Although Zegler does an excellent, graceful job in the finale as it is staged, I missed Wood’s tension, emotional nakedness and guttural cries (including “Don’t you touch him!”) in this finale of West Side Story as, old-fashioned as it may be, Wood holds nothing back in fully conveying Maria’s torment front-and-center, and unforgettably floors the viewer in the process. Wood may not be of the right ethnicity, but the rage and remorse she graphically depicts is universally identifiable to anyone with a beating heart. 


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