Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Nightmare Alley (1947)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Nightmare Alley (1947)

In director Edmund Goulding's dark, bleak, fatalistic and very disturbing noir - it basically told the story of the rise and precipitous fall of a con-man - an overly-ambitious, cynical and fake mentalist/spirtualist or clairvoyant. The repulsive tale of decadence, doom and deception was based upon William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel of the same name, with a screenplay by Jules Furthman. The film featured one of the coldest, most cunning, and calculating femmes fatales ever on film. [Note: Director Guillermo Del Toro's remake Nightmare Alley (2021) starred Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett in the two lead roles.]

The sordid yet compelling film, involving lofty ambitions, trickery and deceptive shakedowns, and double-crosses, failed at the box-office, mostly because 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck hated the film version and took it out of circulation. The film's super-charged sexuality and adultery (for its time) that caused the Production Code to order its scandalous content toned down, was reflected in its tagline:

"He was all things to all men ... but only one thing to all women!"

  • it opened in Burly, TX at one of the traveling Hoatley-Kenny Carnival's sideshows where handsome Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power) was introduced - he was a roustabout drifter who had been raised in an orphanage before going to reform school. He had just joined the carnival as one of its hustlers
  • Stan was intrigued and fascinated by a performance of The Geek - one of the carnival's biggest draws. It was presented by the main carnival barker/owner Hoatley (James Flavin)
    • "He has puzzled the foremost scientists of Europe and America. Is he the missing link? Is he man or beast? Some have pronounced him man. But beneath that shaggy mane of hair, lies the brain of a beast. Look! If he should sink his teeth into my arm, nothing on this round, green earth could save me. Now, folks, it's feeding time"
  • Stan watched as the Geek (George Beranger), in front of the audience (off-screen), bit off the heads of two live chickens

Zeena Krumbein (Joan Blondell) - the Miracle Woman

Drunken Pete (Ian Keith) with Wife Zeena
  • next to the Geek exhibit was a fire-breather, and a Miracle Woman Zeena Krumbein (Joan Blondell), a fortune-teller whose assistant-husband Pete Krumbein (Ian Keith) was a spent, over-the-hill drunkard (a "rum-dumb" acc. to Stan). Zeena watched as Stan stood transfixed by the Geek show. Her specialty was a phony psychic mind-reading act
  • after the Geek act, Stan asked about becoming a Geek: "How do you get to be a Geek? Is that the only one? I mean, is a guy born that way?" He was cautioned to stop asking questions, and pondered to himself the Geek's degrading state in life: "I can't understand how anybody could get so low." (The Geek was a crazed, down-and-out alcoholic bum desperate for work, who took the job in exchange for a daily bottle of liquor.)
  • Stan became Zeena's show announcer and told her how enthusiastic he was for his new experiences within the carny world: "I was made for it. I had all kinds of jobs before this one came along, but none of 'em were anything but jobs. But this gets me. I like it. All of it. The crowds, the noise, the idea of keepin' on the move. You see those 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. Kinda hard to explain, but I like it. I like you too, Zeena"
  • after Stan introduced Zeena and collected hand-written questions from the onlookers, a tricky back stage switch of cards (with Pete assisting in a lower cubbyhole) allowed Zeena to 'see' the questions in order to fool the audience

Molly Cahill (Coleen Gray)

Molly with Bruno the Strongman (Mike Mazurki)
  • another young and pretty carnival worker was Molly Cahill (Coleen Gray) - the 'Electric Girl'; she was the girlfriend of possessive Bruno the Strongman (Mike Mazurki) with a leopard-skin loincloth; her costume was a flimsy, flesh-colored costume with static blue fire shoots from her fingers (covering both breasts)
  • Molly told Stan that Zeena and Pete were once big-time vaudeville headliners with another version of their mentalist act (until Pete became a bottle-hitting drunkard) - and had become stars through the development of a valuable, secret word code: "They used a code...A word code between the two of them. Zeena says that blindfold code is worth its weight in gold....People still offer them big money for it....Zeena says it's their nest egg."
  • while on the road, Stan continued to be intrigued by the code, and manipulatively suggested to Zeena that she teach him the code - just in case Pete couldn't continue due to his sickly condition: ("I was thinking that if Pete got sick or something, why, I could work from the audience just like he used to. No stage trap, no gypsy switch"), but Zeena at first declined by describing her intention to be steadfast and loyal to Pete, but she also admitted: ("I'm about as reliable as a two-dollar cornet"). Although Pete's dissipation and downfall to booze had brought them down to working in the low-life carnival, Zeena wasn't ready to reject Pete quite yet - until she could raise enough money to send him to rehab: "And I'm not gonna give up on him. It's the least I can do."
Stan to Zeena: "Let's build up a new act with it"
  • shortly later, Zeena acceded to Stan's shrewd request-suggestion to share the code so that they develop a new high-class touring act together: ("Let's build up a new act with it") - to fund the cost of Pete's cure. They were becoming closer and closer romantically. Although unsure, Zeena sought advice from a private reading with her tarot cards - she became alarmed when the cards (a "Death" card found face-down on the floor and a "Hanged Man" card) portended Pete's rapid demise and decided to reject becoming Stan's partner: ("It's all off, Stan... Everything...I can't go against the cards")
  • Stan was frustrated by her belief in superstitious magic: "Honest, Zeena, to see a smart girl like you fall for one of your own boob-catchers, I give up." Then, he admitted his tendency to be selfishly persistent, and didn't want to make her unhappy - and they kissed
  • later, Stan bought a quart of cheap $4 dollar liquor from moonshiner Charlie (Mike Lally) in one of the carny trailers, but then accidentally handed an anxious, shaky Pete a similar-looking bottle of Zeena's wood alcohol from her prop trunk. As he drank and came out of his stupor, Pete began to describe a vision of a boy and his dog - a common vision most people had: "A boy is running barefoot through the hills. A dog is with him... 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"
  • Pete's last words were: "Drink a little drink. Dream and drink. Drink and dream" - before he was found dead from poisoning the next morning. Stan was devastated by his role in Pete's death but told no one. A grieving Zeena was regretful that she hadn't found help for him sooner: "He was a good guy and a swell trouper. Only last night I made up my mind to put him in a cure."
  • soon enough, Stan had memorized the code and replaced Pete as Zeena's helper during her mentalist show - and he quickly appeared gifted with the use of memorized verbal cues. Molly described Stan's code technique to Bruno: "She and Stan are using a two-person code....Each word stands for a number. Each number stands for some object...As soon as Stan has more practice, I think they're going to quit the carnival."
  • a rural Marshal (James Burke) threatened to close down the carnival: ("They say you've got an illegal performance going on here with cruelty to human beings and feeding live chickens"); he was determined to arrest the Geek and owner Hoatley, and also Molly for "indecent exposure," but Stan put his mind-reading strategy into action.
Molly's "Indecent Exposure" Electric Girl Act
  • after a demonstration of Molly's need for a thin and revealing costume during her 'electrical' act, Stan performed some sleight-of-hand tricks and used his gifted powers - known as "second sight" - to inform the Marshal that he saw jealous, malicious and "antagonistic influences" surrounding him in his hayseed town - but that he was saved by the power of a "fine woman's love." He convinced the Marshal to depart with religion-talk, and without any animosity toward the carnival: ("Repay evil with good. Love your neighbor. Do not hate your enemies. Forgive them. They just don't know what they're doing. Don't forget to err is human, to forgive - divine. Good-bye now")
The Seductive and Charismatic Stan Kissing Molly to Convince Her of His Love
  • seduced and overwhelmed by Stan's charm in saving the carnival, an exhilarated and thankful Molly kissed Stan twice, but then she worried that they were betraying Zeena. The charismatic shyster soothed her worries and explained how Zeena and he were only friends - he boldly lied to her in order to have her for himself - and she was completely convinced: "Zeena and I are just friends, that's all...I've only been kidding her along on account of the code...I can hardly stand to be in the same room with her ever since Pete died....I haven't been alone with her for 10 seconds. Listen baby, all I want is that code. I'm telling you true."
  • at Lem's Place in town where the two met up with the carnival troupe, Zeena greeted Stan and congratulated him for being a "born mentalist," and everyone seemed relieved, but then Stan and the younger naive Molly were suspected of having slipped away to have sex. Bruno, Zeena and the others (Bruno: "Molly, you and Stan gonna get married?") reviled Stan and persuasively forced him, helped by a choke-hold - to have a shotgun marriage to Molly
  • an opportunity now arose for Stan to reinvent himself with his young bride (who knew the code game) to go on the road performing together with the mentalist show. Stan appeared exhuberant: "Maybe it's the best thing that could have happened...We'll show 'em...I've never been so tickled in my life...Baby, there's only one thing I'm sorry about....That I didn't think of this sooner."
  • performing with Molly, Stan headlined as "The Great Stanton" at an exclusive nightclub (The Spode Room) in the Chicago-area's Hotel Sherman and they became a solid hit. After 8 weeks, one of their show's attendees was consulting psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) who was extremely skeptical of Stanton's question-answering charade. To outwit him, she tested him with the unanswerable trick question: "Do you think my mother will recover from her present illness?" He answered correctly that her mother was deceased. She was visibly but quietly impressed - and invited him (via a note written offscreen) to her Lakeshore Building business office
  • during their visit together, Stan admitted that her question wasn't "on the level" and was intended to make a "chump" out of him. He confronted her: "What's on your mind, lady? What are you up to?" - and with steely eyes, she replied: "Don't worry, Carlisle. I never make the same mistake twice." He quipped: "Me neither."
Steely-Eyed Femme Fatale Lilith Ritter in Her Office With Stan
  • they were unexpectedly interrupted by wealthy, elderly Chicago socialite Mrs. Addie Peabody (Julia Dean), one of her regular patients. With Stan out of the office in a back room, Mrs. Peabody's therapeutic treatment session regarding her deceased daughter Carol was secretly recorded
  • when Stan appeared back in her dark office (immediately after the session), he noted that she was secretly recording the interview-sessions of all her wealthy, high-class patients. Sensing that she was a kindred spirit, he suggested a pecuniary, deceitful scheme to illegally use the information from her recordings to make money off her elite clientele - for either blackmail purposes, or to channel their dead relatives: ("I wanted to get a line on you. Maybe we can do a little business after all....You don't realize what you've got here. We could set this town on its ear") - he had a "hunch" that she was going to first suggest the scheme to him, but she denied the accusation.
  • Lilith claimed that the potentially-sensitive recordings were only for her "personal study" and were considered very "sacred" and private. She threatened him if he was ever to divulge her practice of recording patients, and then promptly threw him out: (Lilith: "Will you get out of here. I should have known you were that kind of..." Stan: "Uh-uh. It takes one to catch one." Lilith: "Get out!")
  • later following one night's performance, Zeena and Bruno visited Stan and Molly in their hotel suite and congratulated them on their continued success; Zeena referred to her tarot cards for consultation - she predicted that Molly wouldn't have children in the year, but if Stan changed and tried a "new stunt" that would send him "to the top like a skyrocket," it would also end up to be a disaster just like Pete's downfall; it was confirmed when Molly turned over "THE HANGED MAN" card (the same as Pete's card)
  • although Stan called Zeena's magic a "pack of gypsy cards," he believed in the portend. He ordered them out, calling them "a couple of cheap carnival freaks." During a massage rub-down after they left, Stan's memory of Pete's death was triggered by the smell of alcohol, and he freaked out.
  • Stan rushed to phone Lilith (at her Belmont Apartments residence), and met with her into the early morning hours. Not realizing he was being recorded (as all her patients were), he described how his stomach was turned "inside out" over giving Pete a fatal bottle of wood alcohol; she diagnosed his memory as "total recall" and explained it was his guilty feelings coming out regarding his role in Pete's death: "I think you're a perfectly normal human being. Selfish and ruthless when you want something, generous and kindly when you've got it. Although Pete died as a result of an accident, you naturally felt a sense of guilt because you profited by it"
  • he complimented her for helping him (services were offered free as a "professional courtesy"): "I figured that if anyone was gonna help me, it'd have to be somebody like you." Despite Zeena's earlier warning, Stan was determined to embark upon the big-time with what he termed "the spook racket." He boasted: "I was made for it."
  • during another show performance, Stan unethically used what he knew of Lilith's recording of her private session with Mrs. Peabody to accurately answer her question about seeing her 16 year-old dead daughter Caroline again "beyond the grave" - then, he went into a trance before he fainted. Following Stan's amazing display of spiritualist powers, there were differences of opinion - did he have true powers or was he a trickster?
  • the normally level-headed Mrs. Peabody conferred with skeptical Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), her late husband's friend, to propose supporting Stan's powers to bring "spiritual comfort" to others. Lilith conspired and teamed up with Stan by providing him with recording information about Grindle. Swayed by Stan's abilities, Grindle (who originallly wished to expose Stan's trickery) offered him $150,000 in cash for the construction of a brand-new tabernacle and a radio station (the funds would be held by Lilith), in exchange for "spiritual communion" with his lost sweetheart Dorrie from 35 years earlier
  • Stan explained his convincing conversations with Grindle to Lilith - and told her that they shouldn't be seen together: "We don't wanna take any chances. This thing's too big. I'm surprised a smart cookie like you... Supposing somebody saw us together and Grindle found out about it. Then where would we be?"
  • after Lilith had acquired old photos of Grindle with Dorrie, in a twisted love triangle with his gullible wife Molly, Stan persuaded Molly to be in on his scheming "subterfuge" by masquerading as the 'materialization' of the ghostly spirit of Grindle's dead love. At first, she cried out: "I knew it...You never were on the level. You lied to me. Zeena was right." She threatened to walk out on him: "You've got to stop it," and told him: "Well, you're going against God....Everything you say and do is so true and wonderful, and you make it sound so sacred and holy, when all the time it's just a gag with you. You're just laughing your head off at those chumps. You think God's gonna stand for that? Do you want him to strike you dead? You can't do it, Stan. Nobody's ever done it. Never!"
Molly's Resistance to Stan's Mentalist and Show-Biz Schemes - She Turned Away From Him
  • although Stan argued back: "There's no difference between this and mentalism. It's just another angle of show business," she insisted: "You're not talking to one of your chumps. You're talking to your wife. You're talking to somebody who knows you red, white and blue. And you can't fool me anymore. There's only one way I can stop you from doing this thing, and that's to leave you." Nonetheless, he convinced her to remain to complete the ultimate trick: "I'm no good. I never pretended to be. But I love you. I'm a hustler. I've always been one. But I love you. I may be the thief of the world, but with you I've always been on the level."
  • in a secluded garden area at the Grindle's estate one evening, Stan met with Grindle to channel his dead love Dorrie. As the anguished and distraught Grindle saw Dorrie in the distance and begged for her forgiveness (had he caused her death?), Molly broke out of character, rushed forward, and revealed she was faking the illusion of Dorrie; Grindle realized he had been swindled by the charade and attacked Stan: ("Fake! You crook! You dirty, sacrilegious thief!"); Stan reacted by pushing Grindle onto the ground.
  • as they drove away, Molly was instructed to pack their things at the motel and rendezvous later at the Inglewood train station, without going back to the hotel. Stan also met with Lilith and described their failed plan: ("There he was on his knees, I had all that dough right in my hand and she has to go and blow her top")
  • Lilith gave Stan an envelope with the cash, and encouraged him to flee and not contact her: ("Don't try to get in touch with me under any circumstances"). On the way to the station in a cab, Stan opened the envelope - Lilith had replaced the $150,000 with single $1 dollar bills ($150 dollars) - and realized he had also been conned. He turned the taxi around and returned to confront Lilith - via her fire escape
  • Stan grabbed her in her bed and accused her of duplicity: ("You're good. You're awful good. Just about the best I ever saw!"). In a cunning way, she treated him as one of her disturbed, delusional and mentally-unbalanced patients that she had failed to cure. She threatened that if he accused her of complicity, she would play the recording of his confession regarding Pete's death. She transferred all the guilt between them onto him:"Since I've been your counselor, you've made a strange transference to me. You see me as a confederate who's cheated you...Really, Mr. Carlisle, I hate to say this to you, but you simply must have hospital care"

Hearing Police Sirens ?
Realizing Lilith's Cunning Trickery
  • realizing that he was had, and that Lilith was offering to have him committed or taken to the hospital, he then believed her and actually thought he was hallucinating and delusional when he heard police sirens; he fled to the train station where he admitted to Molly that Zeena's fortune for him came true: "Zeena wasn't so far off after all." He protectively gave Molly the $150 dollars, and ordered her to somehow return to the carnival in Galesburg, IL before the train pulled away without him; as he walked away, he noticed the latest Chicago Gazette newspaper headlines: "POLICE LOOKING FOR MIRACLE WORKER."

News Headlines

Stan Accepting Carnival Job as a Geek

Molly Promising to Care For Stan
  • Stan's fortunes and career were destroyed - he became a vagrant hobo similar to Pete, living in cheap hotel rooms, drinking heavily, and telling the fortunes and mind-reading for other poor forgotten men. He admitted he was a con man after telling Pete's man and dog story: "Hey, you see how easy it is to hook 'em? Stock reading, fits anybody. Never misses."
  • he sought work in the local carnival from the new owner McGraw (Roy Roberts), but was refused work because he was an obvious "boozer" - but then after begging, he was offered the exploitative job of Geek, in exchange for room and board - and drink: "And we'll keep you in coffee and cakes. Bottle every day. Place to sleep it off in." Stan gladly accepted: "Mister, I was made for it!"
  • unbeknownst to him, Molly was working in the carnival and found Stan who had "gone nuts" and was in a combative, alcoholic daze - she devotedly promised to care for him ("Everything's gonna be all right now. I'll look after you") as Zeena had done for Pete
  • in the unhappy yet fitting ending for Stan, carnival owner McGraw provided the moral of the story: (McGraw: "I never recognized him. Stanton. Stanton the Great." Roustabout (Frank J. Scannell): "How can a guy get so low?" McGraw: "He reached too high.")

The Carnival's Main Entrance

The Geek Sideshow

Transfixed by the Geek Show - Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power)

Stan Asking Owner Hoatley: "How do you get to be a Geek?"

Stan - The Announcer for Zeena's Act

Zeena's Phony Mind-Reading Act

On the Road with Zeena - Stan Asked About Secret Code (Zeena: "I'm about as reliable as a two-dollar cornet")

Pete's Drunken Dissipated State

Zeena - Frustrated by Pete's Alcoholism

Zeena's Tarot Card Reading - Bad Fortunes Ahead For Her Husband Pete and For Them (The "Death" and "The Hanged Man" Card)

Beginnings of Stan's Romantic Relationship with Zeena

Pete's Drunken Monologue Before His Death

Molly's Description of Stan's Code Trickery to Bruno

Stan's Smooth-Talking of the Marshal

Strong-man Bruno With a Choke-Hold on Stan - Forcing Stan to Marry Molly After Seducing Her

"The Great Stanton" Show in Chicago

Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker) - Asking a Question at Stan's Nightclub Show

Stan's Proposed Deceitful Scheme to Lilith - Use Her Private Recordings to Bilk Her Rich Clients

Zeena's 2nd Tarot Card Prediction of Disaster (The Same as Pete's Fate)

Stan's Consultation with Lilith About Pete's Death

Question to Stan From Mrs. Peabody in the Audience

Stan Conspiring with Lilith to Keep Their Association a Secret

'Dorrie's' (Molly's) Spiritual Appearance to Ezra Grindle

Molly Ending the Fraudulent Illusion with Grindle

Retrieving the Cash Envelope From Lilith

Returning to Lilith to Confront Her For Conning Him Out of $150,000

Train Station Farewell to Molly


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