Nightmare Alley opens with the question 'What makes a geek?' The Geek, the lowest rung of any travelling carnival. The almost subhuman creature who decapitates live chickens with his teeth. The geek is looked down on with derision and disgust, and would never be found in any reputable carnival. The question of what makes a geek is one the film will circle back around to at the end, but for now it's mostly deployed as background flavor. It sets the tone of desperation that permeates the film.
Tyrone Power plays Stanton "Stan" Carlisle, a carnie who helps Madame Zeena(Joan Blondell) with her mentalist act, largely taking the place of her husband Pete, who lives in a drunken stupor and is too consistently wasted to do much more than menial behind-the-scenes work. Pete and Zeena once had a big time show, based around a complicated verbal code that allowed Pete to convey information about certain audience members to Zeena. Pete's alcoholism renders him useless for that function, however, so they joined the travelling circus and perform a less complicated, less impressive act. The code is apparently enough of a secret that Zeena refuses to teach it to Stan, planning instead to sell it off at some future date to provide for her retirement.
Once Stan hears about the code, he can't get the idea of performing in a big time show out of his head, and begs Zeena to teach it to him. She refuses, at least Stan accidentally kills Pete by handing him a bottle of grain alcohol by mistake while Pete's on one of his drunken benders. Now, this death is clearly an accident, but also not out of the realm of possibility that Stan would subconsciously try to kill Pete. He's clearly shocked by what he's done, but he also quickly removes any evidence of his involvement, and he's more than happy to benefit from the man's death. Stan and Zeena revive the old act, and Stan proves remarkably adept at it, causing them to quickly become the biggest act in the circus. Of course, that isn't enough for Stan, who we're beginning to see is driven completely by ambition. Soon his drive finds him forced into a shotgun wedding with Molly(Colleen Gray), and exiled from the circus.
That's what makes Stanton such a vile character; he's not evil. He has the capacity for love, friendship, even kindness, yet he ignores those tendencies in order to further his own ambition. He's aware enough to know that what he does in this film is wrong, but zealous enough to not care. Stan never seeks to hurt anyone, but he's more than happy to do it so long as it benefits him in some way. His downfall comes when he finally comes across someone with more brains, and somehow fewer morals. Stan finds himself separated from Molly- the only person who cares about him at all- broke, and wanted by the police for murder. If the film had ended there, it would be impressively bleak, but shockingly there's further for Stan to fall.
Stan becomes a drunk himself, living in a tiny motel room subsisting entirely on alcohol and room service. And then the money runs out, and he finds himself as a hobo, drinking cheap wine around campfires and reminiscing about his glory days and fighting for the last drop of alcohol. Stan's descent into destitution and alcoholism is presented via a brisk montage of sequences, each scene a lower rung Stan is climbing down. This stops when Stan wanders into a carnival seeking a job, a prospect the carnival owner clearly views skeptically, as by this point Stan is severely marked by his fall from grace. His face is lined, his eyes are dark, and his clothes are stained and torn. But the man invites Stan into his office, sits him down, and begins to talk about an available job. Not a glamorous job, but a job. A ground floor job that would give Stan a place to sleep and a bottle a day. And anyway, it's only temporary, only until they find a real geek. Stan looks up, smiles, and repeats his oft-stated phrase: "Mister, I was made for it."
|"Mister, I was made for it."|
Nightmare Alley seems to have found the bleakest note possible to end on, but then it still has one more scene to go. It's easy to see this scene, where Stan and Molly are reunited and Molly promises to take care of Stan, as a cop out happy ending. A studio or censor mandated relief from the grime and soul sickness that has come before. But look a little closer, and you'll see the happiness is false, an ironic mirroring of the relationship between Pete and Zeena earlier in the film. Stan may have avoided rock bottom as a geek, but he's found a level just above that, one that will keep him comparatively comfortable, but one that also lacks the ability to rise. Stan has sunk as far as he can without the capacity for hope.