[Fresh on Criterion] Easy marks, harder truths with noirs – ‘NIGHTMARE ALLEY’ and ‘PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET’

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)

Not rated, 111 minutes.
Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Helen Walker, and Coleen Gray

A sucker is born every minute. If you’ve been played in the past, then you’re a sucker. But if you have the temerity to get yourself above the status quo through unscrupulous means, then you’re a player. You know how to sell lies with a wide grin and think nothing of it. You think big and know the suitable loopholes to exploit. Welcome to NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

Movie superstar Tyrone Power used some of the wattage he had accumulated for 20th Century Fox, the studio behind his hits THE MARK OF ZORRO and BLOOD AND SAND. He convinced studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck to cast him in the lead role. Power, tired of his matinee appeal, wanted to showcase his range as an actor.

As Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a man who joins a traveling carnival and is enthralled by an attraction known as “The Geek,” Power’s walk around the fairgrounds is acutely captured by Edmund Goulding’s direction. We can hear the carnival barker selling the hidden from view half man, half beast monstrosity that bites the heads off chickens. The folksy crowd gawk, while the more sophisticated have their attentions turned to the spiritualist Zeena (Joan Blondell), who claims she can read minds and speak to the dead.

Carlisle wants to know how the act works; once the secret is revealed, he leaves the carnival with Molly (Coleen Gray), another performer. Together, they put their own spin on the mentalism racket in Chicago. But as the mentalist The Great Stanton, Carlisle’s selfishness has no equal. Not even psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), with whom is very well connected to some of the city’s most prominent figures. A plan is hatched to siphon money away from the fat cats. As his addictive personality grows, his clarity wains. It all comes apart; the fall is as quick as his rise. Down into a drunken abyss, he goes, the end of a bottle leading him back to where he came—a motley fool.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY starts seemingly innocuous until we realize our protagonist is a man not bound by morales. Exploit and move on to the next mark. Stan Carlisle is a pragmatist with the priorities that have shaped him to manipulate others. His relationship with a psychologist would wrest his player mentality away, stymieing his progress. Carlisle’s superiority is lost, and so is his inability to bounce back and reclaim it.

Written a year after the Second World War ended, 1946, and adapted one year later, NIGHTMARE ALLEY became a cult oddity associated with the film noir label, falling into its own sub-genre: horror noir. Power is exceptional in the role of Stan Carlisle in a film that failed to make money. He would go back to doing more adventure pictures before dying of a heart attack at age 44. Legal issues would keep his atypical role out of the public’s conscience for more than 50 years. ALLEY finally made its release to DVD in 2005 (as part of the Fox Film Noir collection – Spine Number 6), completely bypassing the VHS format.

As part of the heralded Criterion label, Edmund Goulding’s film is sure to entice noir aficionados. 1947 is arguably the biggest year associated with noir in terms of the number of releases. 20th Century Fox accounted for nearly half a dozen, if not more. Nevertheless, NIGHTMARE ALLEY feels like it was ahead of the curve; the interconnection of addiction and hubris. Plus, its scandalous content and obscurity have only helped to elevate its acclaim.

Among the film’s many admirers is Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro (THE SHAPE OF THINGS, PAN’S LABYRINTH). Both he and Kim Morgan, the latter of whom supplies the essay “The Fool Who Walks In Motley…” for Criterion, which can be found inside the illustrated booklet (along with six tarot cards), have collaborated on a new screen adaptation of Gresham’s novel with an all-star ensemble led by Bradley Cooper playing Stan Carlisle.

The Blu-ray comes with the following special features:

• Audio commentary from 2005 featuring film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver.
• New interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith discussing NIGHTMARE ALLEY’s production.
• New interview with performer and sideshow historian Todd Robbins as he explains the staging of carnival shows and the film’s portrayal of the business.
• Interview from 2007 with actress Coleen Gray talking about the film and working with Tyrone Power.
• Audio excerpt from a 1971 interview with filmmaker Henry King. King discusses his history with Power, who appeared in eleven of his films.
• Trailer

Grade: A-

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PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953)

Not rated, 80 minutes.
Director: Samuel Fuller
Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, and Murvyn Vye

At the start of Samuel Fuller’s PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, we are in a New York City train car. People are seated or standing, their hands gripped to handles hanging from the ceiling to keep from falling when the train slows to a stop. The subway is overcrowded, and it’s the perfect spot for pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). He spots his victim and slowly snakes his way to her. Using a newspaper to disguise the snatch, Skip unfastens her purse and combs the contents, ultimately leaving with her pocketbook. The quick score included something Skip didn’t suspect: a strip of microfilm that, in the hands of Russian intelligence, could leave the U.S. government red faced.

It turns out Skip’s mark was Candy (Jean Peters), an ex-prostitute out to deliver the microfilm to her boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). You won’t find Joey among the congregation on Sundays; he’s not what you would consider husband material. The feds know this, which is why they are also tailing Candy as she makes her way to see him. Skip’s grift, however, confuses the agents forcing FBI agent Zara (Willis B. Bouchey) to get the assistance of local police captain Tiger (Murvyn Vye), who reaches out to his most valued informer Moe (Thelma Ritter). Moe knows all the usual suspects and how to identify them by Modus operandi. Through a line of questioning – Moe to Zara, not the other way around – she tells Captain Tiger and the agent that Skip is their guy.

A career pickpocket doesn’t simply turn over the information out of kindness. Plus, this is Richard Widmark, for Pete’s sake. The guy who pushes old ladies down a flight of stairs and cackles louder than a hyena (as he does as the villainous Tommy Udo in his screen debut KISS OF DEATH). He wants a little something for his troubles—a little dough-re-mi from the commies. The cops track Skip down to his hideout but hold back until Candy can use her feminine wiles to get the microfilm back and hand it over to Joey. What they didn’t plan on is Candy taking a shine to the thief only to be rejected. But when Joey takes out his frustrations on her, Skip snaps and becomes his own brand of red menace.

OK, so PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET makes some observations to raise awareness of the dangers the Soviet Union poses. Released in 1953, two years after kids were given instructions on the proper way to duck and cover in the event of a nuclear attack, the movie’s MacGuffin seems foolish by today’s standards. But movie studios peddling paranoia to the masses was about as normal as taking what you read on social media as truth.

Leave it to Fuller to imbue a little realism with the fanatical. Skip is in it for himself. He could care less about communists or patriotism. To him, civic duty is for suckers. Candy is a nice dish and all, but Skip is the kind of cat that can break hearts and walk away and feel right as rain.

About the wisest of the bunch is Moe. She’s not out to make friends either. Patriotism to her is less valuable than printed currency, which she prefers. Moe knows her worth and the value of the invaluable information she can provide. Both she and Skip have an understanding, an ethical code that only dodgers and heels share. It is this sense of morality where we gravitate to the grifters and the side hustlers. Those who don’t take kind to handouts and charity, but like to make a quick buck by hook or by crook.

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET flies by with Samuel Fuller’s direction and Joseph McDonald’s cinematography, making this B-level noir for 20th Century Fox more stylish than originally intended. Not bad for a filmmaker transitioning from war pictures (THE STEEL HELMET, FIXED BAYONETS!) to his first film noir and working with Richard Widmark and Thelma Ritter. She would score a supporting actress nomination for her work as the stoolie Moe.

Originally released on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection in fall 2005 (#224), this 2021 Blu-ray release drops a vintage interview with Richard Widmark, photo gallery, and poster gallery for other Fuller films, retains a few, and adds some new ones.

Retained special features:

• “Samuel Fuller on Pickup On South Street” (1989) – film critic Richard Schickel interviews Sam Fuller.
• “Cinema Cinemas” (1982) – an archival French TV program with Sam Fuller explaining some of the sequences from PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET. (Original air date: December 1, 1982)
• Trailers – a collection of trailers for films directed by Samuel Fuller, including Criterion titles THE NAKED KISS (#18), SHOCK CORRIDOR (#19), WHITE DOG (#445), and FORTY GUNS (#954).

New special features:

• “Fierce Independence” – interview with critic and author Imogen Sara Smith.
• “Hollywood Radio Theatre” (1954) – Radio adaptation of the film. Thelma Ritter reprises her role as Moe, with Terry Moore as Candy and Stephen McNally as Skip.
• Booklet with a reprinted essay from Martin Scorsese, a new piece from critic Luc Sante, and, a chapter from Fuller’s posthumously published 2002 autobiography, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.”

Grade: B

If you are a fan of classic noir, it’s hard to go wrong with either of these releases from Criterion. However, of the two, I’m more inclined to go with NIGHTMARE ALLEY, which is outside the norm for what constitutes a noir picture. Label it as “horror noir” (or “carni-noir,” as I like to call it) with a strong performance by matinee idol Tyrone Power, ALLEY is a dark tale about deceit and achievement and not knowing when to stop.

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