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Nightmare Alley (1947)

by on 2012/03/26

“I have a heart as big as an artichoke. Everyone gets a leaf.”

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Thank you for visiting

You know, there’s something about you. Something sad.

I want to say that you’ve lost someone close to you. I feel like …there’s been a loss of some kind. Yes, a loss. Am I right?

I want to say that I see a man… No, it is a woman. That’s right, isn’t it?

Yes, you’ve lost someone.

I’m an evangelical atheist and skeptic, but that hasn’t stopped me from learning everything about there is to know about palmistry, Tarot cards, Runes, astrology, Chinese fortune telling sticks, you name it. I have it all. I’m absolutely fascinated by this stuff.

People want to believe strange things. That’s what Nightmare Alley is all about.

Tyrone Powers plays self-proclaimed hustler, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a carnie for a travelling side show. Stan has big dreams and designs on a comely fellow huckster Zeena (Joan Blondell), a sideshow psychic with an alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith).

Stan’s seems a mostly nice guy, but in reality he’s a striving and empty opportunist. When tragedy strikes the circus, Stan profits, steals the secret behind the faithless Zeena’s phony psychic act, and then continues to turn the threads of human need all around him into gold.

Stan’s genius is a grifter’s watchfulness. He’s a keen observer of people. He knows just what buttons to push. He graduates from life as a carnie, to life in the finest nightclubs and hotels as The Great Stanton. And that shifty talent takes him right into the mansions of the elite.

Stanton has his keen powers of observation and he has a powerful partner in crime – a psychologist to the wealthy and famous Dr.  Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker).

This combination makes The Great Stanton unstoppable. People – wealthy and influential people – are throwing money at him hand over fist. But as I watched I remembered that the real key to making money from “boot catchers” was that people just plain want to believe.

In my late teens, I learned how to tell someone’s fortune with Tarot cards so convincingly that I was a sought after on campus by drunken co-eds begging me to tell them “their future.” The reality was that it was just a trick, a terrible one at that.

I asked questions. I watched for their micromomentary expressions – a subtle head nod, a slight parting of the lips, an intake of breath, fast blink. Most of the time, people just answered the questions directly, sharing most of the detail themselves.

As I learned then and learned again watching Nightmare Alley, there’s money to be made. Dirty, filthy money. And there are loads of dirty, filthy Great Stantons out there.

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110 minutes

Rated PG for drinking, maltreatment of geeks and the frank depiction of Psychic Friends behaving badly

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  1. A Geek’s Month in Review: March 2012 « Geek vs Goth

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