Drinker's Cinema: Nightmare Alley

POOR PETE. The sallow-faced, haunted Pete Krumbein is not the main character of 1947’s carnival noir masterpiece Nightmare Alley — no, that honor belongs to Stanton Carlisle, a handsome young jerk of a roustabout, played by Tyrone Power with a quick smile and murderous eyes. Carlisle is headed for a fall, but first he must rise high enough for it to mean something, and the film adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's tough-minded novel takes Carlisle about as high as a two-bit hustler can get, running his own empire of sham spiritualism, bilking millionaires with parlor-trick mind-readings. Then the film takes Carlisle just as low: Suffice it to say that when the first scene of a movie has a carnie wondering aloud how a man can be brought to a condition where he works as a geek, the subject of the film is going to be finding the answer to that question.

Nightmare AlleyBut we do not concern ourselves with Carlisle here. Instead, we look to a smaller character in the film, another sham mind reader, Pete, who has already had his fall. Carlisle and Pete have an uneasy friendship. They are, after all, bedding the same woman, the aging and very willing mitt camp tarot reader Zeena, played by Joan Blondell. With his instinct for cold reading and his commanding presence, Carlisle is an echo of the man Pete used to be, before Zeena’s sexual treachery drove him to drink. Now Pete spends his days slumped under a tent, working just hard enough to earn money for a bottle of rotgut. Pete was a star once on the vaudeville stage, performing impossible mentalist routines with the help of a two-person code he cooked up with Zeena. Magnificently played by Ian Kieth, Pete occasionally shows flashes of his former self, a man who was at once both kindly and charismatic. One night at the carnival, while the geek roams among the tents screaming from night terrors, Pete mesmerizes Carlisle with a demonstration of his act. He stares into a bottle and seems to draw out of it lost tales of Carlisle’s own past, and then he laughs at Carlisle. He’s been hustling the younger man, telling him stock readings that fit everybody. “Every boy had a mother who waited for them,” Pete says, grinning savagely. “Every boy had a dog.”

There are many cinematic drinkers who warrant our attention, but we will focus here on Pete, because he serves as an important warning. Pete’s a good man gone wrong, thanks to betrayal and alcohol; both will eventually kill him, and he seems to want it that way. Without a drink, he’s capable of very little but staggering around the camp, shaking deliriously and begging for alcohol. But, when drunk, he does very little but crawl into a corner and sleep, or stare suspiciously at passers-by. Carlisle wants Pete’s act, he wants Pete’s woman, he wants Pete’s fame, but you can’t have everything that was good in Pete’s life without being infected by some of the bad. When Zeena’s tarot readings for Stanton Carlisle begin to turn up the hanged man card, which had been Pete’s card, and when Carlisle himself begins to surreptitiously purchase bottles of bathtub gin from bellhops, his die is cast. He would do well to remember the words Pete uttered when he drank from his last bottle of alcohol, because Pete’s misfortune will soon be Carlisle’s.

Pete’s last drink was poison, from a bottle of rubbing alcohol, accidentally offered to him as corn mash. When asked how it tasted, Pete screwed up his weary face and complained: “Awful.” Then he grinned, a gallows grin, filled with dark humor, before adding “I wish a had a barrel of it.” (SPARBER)

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