In Nightmare Alley (1947), based on the dark novel by William Lindsay Gresham, you enter a bizarre oneiric universe of thwarted ambition and inescapable degradation.
A world of geeks and freaks, where a predatory femme-fatale uses greed not sex to trap her prey, where the hallucinations at the bottom of an empty gin bottle transport you to hell, where illusion and reality fuse into a phantasmagoria of tarot cards and hangmen, and where both tabernacles and carnival tents mock faith and trade on gullibility. Life is a squalid con where you can trust no one, the only solace is in booze, and redemption is as a carnival geek fed on live chickens.
Director Edmund Goulding and cinematographer Lee Garmes fashion a monstrous world of dark nights and sordid shadows. Death and opportunism are pulled out of an illusionist’s trunk, and a fog of angst shrouds all in its wake. There are no actors here: only visages and apparitions that inhabit a shadow play where Jungian archetypes invade your subconscious.
Never was a film noir more aptly titled – the nightmare at the end of the dark alley of the soul.