Nightmare Alley—Edmund Goulding—1947

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Nightmare Alley is an unrelenting Noir. Its surrealistic atmosphere keeps building in the first two acts, and by the last third you’ve entered a dreamscape where sounds, words, and images can’t be trusted. It’s a tender film too. It forces the audience into a troubling sympathy with a genuinely sociopathic character and paints humanity as capable of both tragic folly and divine grace. The Nightmare, like its main character, is a paradox that is, at its core, mystical. 

In my post for the Film Noir Foundation’s Blogathon I want to look at the film’s psychosexual themes. Sigmund Freud was extremely popular in Post-War America, and almost all Films Noir fish his waters heavily. I always think of Professor Richard Wanley in front of the huge blackboard with Freud’s name on it in Woman in the Window when I think of Noir’s very self-conscious roots in the unconscious. 

Most Noirs are so straight-forward with their Freudian themes that sub-text slips up into the actual text. Part of what makes Nightmare Alley so special is the way that it encompasses so many of Freud’s ideas in a very poetic frame—using a complex story to conceal many of the themes behind an intense melodrama and powerfully Leftist politics. A whole post could be devoted to the film’s politics, and that level of complexity is a huge factor in keeping the Freudian themes in the movie’s subtext. 

Das Unheimlich (The Uncanny,) the stages of Psychosexual Development, and Transference/Countertransference are all explored in fascinating ways, and its ending actually has the protagonist regressed to a childlike state of dependence, ready to start his Psychosexual journey again—this time with a little help. 

Nightmare concerns an up-and-coming mentalist named Stanton Carlisle. While learning his craft in a traveling carnival he seduces a psychic named Zeena. Her husband Pete is a terrible alcoholic who can barely perform anymore, but he and Zeena used to be big-time—using a code to work the crowd. When Pete dies, Stan can learn the code, take his place, and start the act up again. Unfortunately for Zeena, Molly, a young showgirl nicknamed Elektra, falls in love with Stan. Eventually Molly and Stan get married and start their own act in the big city. Perpetually unsatisfied, Stan hooks up with an evil, androgynous psychaitrist named Lilith in an attempt to use the inside info she gets from her wealthy clients for bigger scams. In the end, Lilith proves even less trustworthy than Stan, and in one of Noir’s great denouements, Stan ends up back at his old carnival–stripped not only of his wealth but his dignity and sanity as well. Molly’s there though, and with her willingness to take care of him, Stan has a chance at finding some peace. 

The script uses a series of brilliant rhymes to support its sophisticated thesis on Freud’s theories of Psychosexual Development; at various points characters will repeat lines they or others have said earlier in the film. There are a dozen-or-so examples like this, and I will refer to several throughout this analysis. 

At first the film appears to set Stan on a path parallel to the geek we see in the opening scenes, but the geek’s symbolism is more complex. As the camera pans over the stage facades we can clearly see the tag-line on the geek’s cage, 


Body of a Man–Soul of a Beast 

In Freud’s 1919 essay The Uncanny, he says that “among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs [his emphasis.] So one feature of Unheimlich is that it is something that reminds you of repressed emotions. 

The geek is Stan’s unbridled Id. A creature of pure animal mania–lacking not only Super-Ego, but Ego too, and all concepts of “self,” the geek exists on stage and behind carnival fences. We never see him front-and-center in the mise-en-scene because he is an unconscious element of the carnival. “That’s always a sore point in a carnival…Geek’s one of our biggest draws, but a lot of performers won’t work a show that carries one.” 

The geek’s scream is used as a separate symbol later in the film because it has an Expressionistic sound field that juxtaposes unrelated sounds to create a unique emotional effect. In several key scenes—Zeena & Bruno’s spoiled visit, Stan’s massage flashback, and the scene with him buying the booze from the bellhop—you hear the geek’s harrowing wail imposed over unrelated action. Each time its in conjunction with something in the mise-en-scene bringing up in Stan the original trauma that set him on his destructive path. I’ll show later that this trauma is abandonment, and the geek is certainly “God’s lonely man”–seperated from everyone by his madness. 

Stanton is not scared of the geek; in his own words he is “fascinated” by him. “It must be a matter of indifference whether what is uncanny was itself originally frightening or whether it carried some other affect,” Freud says, and in Nightmare it’s not fear, but sadness. Stan is a lonely miserable man whose unconscious sees the geek as a kindred spirit. His Ego cannot accept this, and it represses this identifcation deep into the Id. The haunting screams are its restless siren’s call, begging Stan to give in and geek out. 


The geek may be Stan’s Id, but his true doppleganger is Pete; some critics complain that Nightmare Alley ends on too uplifting a note, presumably because he has Molly and a chance at ending his geekdom, but that reading is only possible if you see geekdom as the end of his journey–it’s not. Pete makes it clear when he says that if not for Zeena they would be saying “poor Pete.” He would be a geek if Zeena hadn’t been there to take care of him. 

At the end of the film, Stan and Molly are cast into the roles of Pete and Zeena: absent any more useable skills, Stan will silently drink himself to death while she takes care of him like a baby. The only difference is that Stan and Molly are “children” of Zeena and Pete, and as such there’s hope that they can change the future. This is the perfect resolution to the film’s Freudian themes–as all alcoholics know, “rock-bottom” is the start of the journey up, not the end of the story.

Freud’s essay also contains a look at Otto Rank‘s theories of the double, which Rank explored in his 1925 book Der Doppleganger. For Rank, the double is not just a “preservation against extinction,” but, 

also all the unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in phantasy, all the strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all our suppressed acts of volition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will. 

Pete still clings to “unfulfilled but possible futures”—hence the refusal to teach the code or even sell it—and in one of the most beautiful, poignant, and intimate scenes of psychological transference in the history of cinema, Pete and Stan criss-cross destinies, and Stan walks away with Pete’s “strivings of the ego which external circumstances have crushed.” Pete can now thwart fate through his doppleganger—The Great Stanton. Stan was certainly ambitious before this conversation with Pete, but its not until then that he realizes the heights he’ll someday reach. This journey began when Stan was just a child, but in the film it starts in this crucial scene.

Transference is often thought of as purely erotic, and in this model the analysand becomes enamored to the analyst. However, Freud emphasizes the child-parent relationship as the primary model of transference; “A nerve is struck when someone says or does something that reminds you of your past. This creates an ’emotional time warp’ that transfers your emotional past and your psychological needs into the present,” says Michael Conner, Psy. D. 

The patient is not satisfied with regarding the analyst in light of reality as a helper and adviser…On the contrary, the patient sees in him the return, the reincarnation, of some important figure out of his childhood or past, and consequently transfers on to him feelings and reactions which undoubtedly applied to this prototype…This transference is ambivalent: it comprises positive (affectionate) as well as negative (hostile) attitudes towards the analyst, who as a rule is put in the place of one or other of the patient’s parents, his father or mother. (Freud: An Outline of Psychoanalysis) 

“I wonder why I’m like that,” he says, “well, never thinking ’bout nobody but myself.” Zeena asks him if his parent’s dropped him on his head. “Yeah, they dropped me alright.” In another important scene someone asks if he had any parents at all. “Well, if I did they weren’t much interested.” So for Stanton, abandonment interrupted his Psychosexual Development: parts of his Ego are stranded in both the Oral and Phallic Stages.

On the one hand Stanton is definitely “a phallic character, who is reckless, resolute, self-assured, and narcissistic—excessively vain and proud.” ((VictorianWeb)) But behind this is an oral fixation marked “by pessimism, envy, suspicion and sarcasm.” ((VictorianWeb)) Stan’s arrested oral development, characteristic of alcoholics, originates in his infantile abandonment–he had no mother to breast feed him at all, let alone wean him too abruptly. 

Like so many Noir figures, Stan has an unresolved Oedipus Complex. Stan’s phallicism dominates his surface Ego, and it is the product of this later and more famous Freudian psychodynamic. Lacking both parents, Stanton wasn’t able to project identification onto his father, and in turn he was unable to develop either a superego to govern his impulses or a healthy sexuality with which to relate to women. 

We see his cold sexuality on display in several scenes. After the first doomful Tarot reading when Zeena says, “It’s off,” Stan’s only reaction is a trembling, “The act?” It’s not the dissolution of their sexual relationship that bothers him–merely the loss of the act and the success it could bring. So while he has several romantic partners in the film, he’s never portrayed as a sensual character. Something is missing in Stanton. 

"The act?

The most disturbing example of this is after his and Molly’s arranged marriage. Ed at Only The Cinema put it well earlier this week: “The scene is staged like a conventional romantic climax, a moment of togetherness and union, but the lovers are talking past one another, seeming to say the same things but meaning something very different.” Stan uses his sexuality only in relation to money and success–never as a ‘natural’ biological end unto itself. 


Transference is not just something that happens between analyst/analysand but a natural phenomena between parent/child as well, and it’s a special type of transference called Identification that resolves the Oedipus Complex: “Although the boy sees that though he cannot posses his mother, because his father does, he can posses her vicariously by identifying with his father and becoming as much like him as possible,” explains VictorianWeb, but Stan was raised in an orphanage and a reform school where he “got wise” and learned that lying about one’s salvation won him favor with authority figures. 

Stan filled the void left by a lack of Superego with pure unadulterated Id, and it’s in that state that we meet him in the beginning of the film. 

I like it, the crowds the noise the idea of keeping on the move, you see these yokels out there–it gives you sort of a superior feeling. As if you were in the know and they were on the outside looking in. 

From the beginning of his career there is something strange about Stan’s ability. Zeena recognizes it right away; the opening shot of the film is Zeena sizing him up from a distance, and later she tells him “I think you’ve got ‘something’ Stan.” At first that ‘something’ is clearly just charisma and looks, but after the aforementioned scene of transference, Stan’s unique nature takes on a more phantastic nature. 

One night, after Zeena has told everyone in the carnival not to give Pete any booze, Stan buys a bottle to keep himself company while he wanders around the grounds. When he hears Pete coming, he hides the bottle in Zeena’s trunk and they strike up a conversation. Pete is delirious from alcohol withdraw and in a display of genuine empathy, Stan reaches back into the trunk and gives Pete the only thing he knows to calm him down. 

During their conversation the geek starts screaming and throwing a fit. “He’s got the heebie-jeebies again,” Stan says, and sub-textually the geek’s Uncanny wails indicate that repressed material will rear its ugly head. This primes the two men for transference. 

Pete reads the crystal ball

After a few sips to loosen himself up, Pete goes into his old spiel, 

Pete: Throughout the ages Man has sought to look behind the veil that hides him from tomorrow. And through the ages certain men have looked into the polished crystal and seen. Is it some quality of the crystal itself? Or does the gazer merely use it to turn his gaze inward? Who knows? But visions come. Slowly shifting their form, visions come. Wait, the shifting shapes begin to clear. I see fields of grass and rolling hills…and a boy. The boys is running barefoot through the hills, a dog is with him–a dog is with him.”  

Stan: “Yes, his name was Jip, go on.” 

Pete: “Ha, see how easy it is to hook em? Stock reading. Fits everybody. What’s youth? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy has a dog. 

This is the crucial exchange in the film, and its one that refracts the story’s ideas into a million possible interpretations. In many ways these lines evoke the nature of cinema itself. His reference to the ‘gaze’ can’t help but bring to mind Mulvey’s classic essay (from 1975,) and the lines about youth remind us that storytellers’ reliance on universality is not only one of their virtues but a source of potential exploitation. 

On top of these meta-themes is the super-textual theme of spiritual manipulation. Religions are successful precisely because ‘every boy has a dog’–you can gather a bunch of people in a room and feed them universal platitudes they want to hear and you’ve ‘got ’em hooked.’ 

On the other hand, every boy does have a dog in some sense–otherwise it wouldn’t work. It’s very universality grants it at the very least a cultural significance.Why is Stan hooked? Here’s a man who is the very epitome of cynicism. Relentlessly self-centered he doesn’t really believe in anything other than himself–so how does he get hooked? That’s the magic of this sort of scam…there’s an element of Truth in it. 

Pete’s ability to hook Stan with his stock reading provokes the long delayed Identification response in Stan. He’s clearly amazed at how well Pete was able to trick a savvy carny, and he wanders off whistling a happy tune. 

In the morning Pete is dead. The alcohol Pete drank was Zeena’s wood alcohol used in her act. Whether Stan knew or not–whether his actions were subconscious or not is unimportant. Freud says that guilt is independent of the Ego’s intention–it strikes us only if the Ego has percieved wrongdoing. This guilt plagues Stan for the rest of the film, until Lilith—notably, a psychologist—uses it to take advantage of him. 

Besides this guilt complex, there’s a sexual component to transference with Pete. A few scenes after this metamorphosis he tells Molly that he “can’t stand being in the same room with Zeena since Pete died.” Freud tells us that part of the successful resolution of the Oedipus Complex involves a distancing from the maternal figure and the adoption of “traditional” gender roles (essentially a Madonna/Whore complex.) This is why Stan gravitates to Molly after Pete’s death–he thinks he is assuming his natural role in the sexual sphere, but since he has only pushed past his phallic neuroses into his oral fixation, he is unable to genuinely take his place next to Molly either. 

In the scene after Pete’s body is discovered, The Great Stanton is so confident in his mentalism that he is able to reproduce the effect Pete had on him with a local Sheriff that is trying to run the carnival out of town. By the end of the reading he’s enmeshed the Sheriff in cliches like “to err is human” and “love thy neighbor,” but he leads with a startlingly accurate guess–one of a handful in the film that seem to point towards genuine psychic ability. 

How does he know the Sheriff has a daughter? How does he know that Lillith’s mother is dead? And most importantly, why are both Tarot readings so accurate? The film refuses to make easy distinctions on these points, but it seems like Stan’s extraordinary repression and arrested development have maintained a child-like connection to certain supernatural forces. In a way, it’s the Uncanny working through him that allows his flights of random psychic accuracy.

...the cards Pete's dealt

The two Tarot readings are interesting for a couple reasons. The first is the discrepancy between Pete and Stan’s readings. Pete’s future is seen with two cards—The Hanged Man, his identifying card, and Death, his future. When Zeena reads Stan’s future later, he gets The Hanged Man twice. The two characters are paralleled. Pete was destined to die; Stan is destined to become Pete. 

The other interesting sub-text that comes out of these scenes concerns Stan’s orality. While outwardly Stan is a seemingly optimistic character, when he see’s his The Hanged Man card, there’s is a crystal-clear expression of resignation on his face. When Lilith tries to convince him he’s crazy, he gobbles it up. Why? Why would such a confident Ego be prone to moments of such extreme weakness? It’s his oral fixation—his original psychosexual hang-up, and it’s the primary source of his downfall. He ridicules the “boob-cathchers” as being “for the chumps,” but this is classic projection and overcompensation. Like Zeena says, “Sure I believe ’em, and Stan does too…they were right for Pete weren’t they?” 

An oral fixation stemming from neglect is “characterized by pessimism, envy, suspicion and sarcasm.” ((VictorianWeb)) Suspicion, sarcasm, and envy are all obvious and conscious aspects of Stanton’s Ego. However, the pessimism is most important because it resides solely in his unconscious, manifesting late in the game as a self-destructive streak that lets him be hoodwinked by Lilith. Even his ability to “good-talk” people and eventual alcoholism are clues that point towards his crippling oral fixation.

Baby needs him bottle

The importance of Stan’s mother as the prime figure of psychosexual angst is shown in the most significant rhyming scene in the film. After his fall from grace, he recounts the reading Pete gave him on the night of his death to a group of bums. The retelling is word-for-word, except for one embellishment–a mother is added to the dog as a crucial signifier of childhood. He adds to Pete’s “every boy has a dog” “every boy has a beautiful old grey haired mother…except for maybe me.” This lack isn’t resolved until the final scene of the film.

"Is it some quality of the crystal itself? Or does the gazer merely use it to turn his gaze inward?"

Stanton’s relationship to Lilith in the last third of the movie is his undoing. Dr. Lilith Ritter was probably named after Adam’s non-canonical first wife, who was created out of the same clay as Adam and saw herself as his equal. Lilith is another character trapped in the Phallic Stage, which Freud said manifested in women the desire to “dominate men.” Lilith dresses in men’s clothing, wears short hair, and makes sexual advances towards Stanton–all characteristic of traditional maculinity, but in the final end she is no mere male impersonator–she wields the phallus with far more confidence and foresight than Stanton.

Lilith claimed equality with Adam because she was created from the same dust

In an amazing role-reversal, Lilith is then the victim of Countertransference–”Countertransference means that…the analyst plays a role in the patient’s script…the result is the ‘chaotic situation,'” says Eric Berne. This would certainly explain Lilith’s polarized emotional responses to Stan’s sociopathy. She’s intrigued when he (psychically?) catches her little ruse at the nightclub, but she’s truly horrified at him eavesdropping on one of her sessions. She kicks him out, and when he suggests that some time in the future they may be scamming people together she is aghast. “Are you insane?” she asks. He tells her he probably is. 

But the Countertransference doesn’t occur until Stan’s repressed guilt forces him to seek out Lilith for Psychoanalysis. Sitting in her apartment—him as feverish and confused as Pete on that fateful night; her in her most feminine outfit and hair—both totally open. He tells her the story of Pete and the Tarot readings, asking if she thinks he’s crazy. 

I think you’re a perfectly ordinary human being. Selfish and ruthless when you want something. Generous and kindly when you’ve got it. 

Anyone that thinks Stanton Carlisle is a “perfectly ordinary human being” is definitely going through an intense psychic event. Stan even rhymes a line for the third time in this scene, “I heard you the first time”—first said from Pete to Stan, then Stan to Pete during the first transference, and finally from Stan to Lilith in this scene, connecting Lilith to Pete in a perverse scriptual moebius strip. 

As Stan leaves her office, she rhymes his intonation of intimacy from their first private meeting—”takes one to catch one.” One what? One phallo-centric neurotic of course! This is really the first instance of her appearing to have ill intentions at all. The next time we see her she’s dressed with even more macho flair, and she makes confident sexual advances toward Stanton. The transference is complete–she has a “role in the patient’s script.”

"I don't hear anything..."

As she plays out this role Stan becomes continually weaker. His strength revolves around his ability to—psychically or psychologically—read people, and his increasing reliance on inside information from Lilith paralells his loss of phallic, manipulative power. By the time he’s squaring off against the super-rich Grindle, the “act” isn’t relying on him or his abilities at all anymore. It’s his plan–”the patient’s script,” but Molly is in complete control, and it’s her moral voice that has the final say in its execution. “The kid said I couldn’t get away with it and I had to stick my neck out,” he tells Lilith, and by this point he’s so far gone that Lilith is actually able to convince him that he’s hearing sirens in his head, and the reticent pessimism so characteristic of an oral fixation bubbles to the surface and drives him mad. 

Now he knows he’s going down, down, down—so he has no qualms about holding up in a hotel for three days without food and starting a bender that probably lasts all through the untold years that pass before we see him regaling the bums with Pete’s old stock reading. 

More pessimistic, envious, suspicious, and sarcastic than we’ve ever seen him, Stan makes his way to his old carnival. When the owner pours him a drink—he says it’s “very refreshing”—we finally see him so hatefully low that it reminds us of Pete’s pathetic lie to Zeena—”I should have a small orange juice, two three minute eggs, melba toast, and coffee.” 

That night, after being taken on temporarily until the carnival can “find a real geek,” Stan raves about the camp, screaming. He hasn’t really been there long enough to sink into genuine madness, but he knows what geeks are like–he’s seen them before. If The Great Stanton is going to be a geek, he’s going to be the maddest geek of them all, and this is the nadir of his pessimism. Its truly Stanton Carlisle’s “rock-bottom.”

The coda, with Molly finding him at the carnival and telling him she’ll take care of him positions him finally as the The Hanged Man. He’s regressed back into his childhood, into an infantile state of complete dependence on a woman–just like Pete had so many years before. Finally he will have his “beautiful old grey-haired mother,” and although Pete wasn’t able to escape the cycle of self-destruction that his own neurosis guaranteed, it’s possible Stan can find some sort of peace with Molly.

“How does a guy get so low?” It’s not an easy question to answer. Certainly by “reaching too high” Stanton Carlisle set himself up for failure, but the more important question is, why did he reach so high?What is it in certain people that drives them towards greatness. Ambition is often thought of as one of the most positive attributes a person can have: the inverse of those nasty traits: laziness and complacency. 

Ambition is the root of the American dream–the idea that if you want it bad enough you can get it, and Films Noir regularly skewered that delusion. From Citizen Kane on, Film Noir has shown the American Ideal of someone who will overcome any obstacle to reach their goal as not the embodiment of some kind of Protestant Work Ethic, but in fact just a selfish, lonely child. 

You can fight for what you want, but if what you’re missing is just the comfort of your mother’s breast then you’re never going to find it. Nothing will ever be enough, and eventually you’ll lose your mind looking.

6 Responses to "Nightmare Alley—Edmund Goulding—1947"
  1. Marya says:

    this is such a freaky film.

    • Randomaniac says:

      Yeah, this movie really creeped me out. Have you seen any of Val Lewton’s film’s? ‘Nightmare Alley’ definitely reminded me of Lewton’s work.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Thanks for you thoughtful essay on Nightmare Alley. Your mention of Val Lewton is also significant. His Cat People and Curse of the Cat People have so many Noir qualities. And with The Leopard Man, he uses the noir writer Cornel Woolrich story to great effect. But read Woolrich’s original “The Black Alibi,” the story the movie is based on – the scene by the cemetary is as creepy and well-written as anything you’ll ever run accross.

    • Randomaniac says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
      So far the only of Lewton’s I’ve seen are “Cat People” and “Curse of the Cat People,” but they were enough to recognize his huge influence on Noir.

      Great tidbit about Woolrich. I’ve seen “The Dark Corner?” which is also based on a short story by Woolrich. I really want to read the book that “Nightmare Alley” was based on. Its author led a sad life.

      Thanks again for the comments.

  3. A very nice post, and blog (I love old movies). I found this researching Nightmare Alley. I run a blog (http://tobecomeawriter) where I post weekly on film noir because the main character in my Reed Ferguson mystery series loves film noir. I would love to have you guest blog. If you’re interested, drop me an email. Thanks.

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