Thursday, July 12, 2007

Noir City Northwest: The Spiritualist (1948)/Nightmare Alley (1947)

Is there magic in the film noir world? Sure. Rigging the lights so shadows fall just so or the camera catches cigarette smoke drifting heavenward like a lost soul takes a special kind of alchemy. Pairing up actors who can convey twisted animal longing in a single glance is no easy trick.

But actual magic? No. There’s no room for illusion on these mean streets. If someone says they’re communing with spirits and you don’t see a bottle of rye whiskey, then you, my friend, are about to be rooked. Don’t say you weren’t warned. The best Noir City double-bill so far focused on the genre’s lowest of the low: the phony psychic.

For me The Spiritualist, aka The Amazing Mr. X, is the find of the festival, the B-movie perfectly executed. Turhan Bey dazzles as the title charlatan out to convince a rich widow that he’s in contact with her late husband. But the true star is cinematographer John Alton. He establishes an otherworldly atmosphere in the opening frames that never lets up. The visual tricks he deployed sixty years ago still cast a spell.

The B-movie set up the audience for the main attraction. Nightmare Alley, according to Eddie Muller, is not only one of the greatest noirs but one of the finest American films of the 1940s. I first saw it in what turned out to be its final TV airing for more than a decade owing to copyright issues, and have watched it again on the recent Fox DVD. But a 35MM print on the big screen is encountering a movie anew.

Jules Furthman adapted the singular novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Tyrone Power crosses over to the dark side like no matinee idol before or since as Stanton Carlisle, a carny who concocts a “mentalist” act that takes him from midway to mansions. But he soon learns that bogus religion has nothing on bent science, in the person of sinister headshrinker Helen Walker. Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell and noir staple Mike Mazurki round out a top-notch cast.

I heard some grumbling on the way out of the theater that the story’s outcome was apparent from the start, but far from diminishing its impact that foreshadowing gives Nightmare Alley the force of tragedy. Ignore the studio-imposed “happy” ending. It only underscores how far into hell Stanton Carlisle has fallen.