Monday, January 3, 2022

Nightmare Alley and The Tragedy of Macbeth: Cinematic “Art”

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley.

William Lindsay Gresham’s tough, darkly lyrical 1946 novel Nightmare Alley moves from the carny life to the world of phony spiritualists – scam artists who make a living off the sorrow of rich people trying desperately to contact loved ones on the other side of the grave. (In real life Harry Houdini was one of the more celebrated marks.) Gresham’s anti-hero is Stanton Carlisle, who joins a carnival and partners up with his lover, Zeena, to revive the mentalist act she used to perform with her husband Pete, a hopeless drunk who dies when Stan hands him a flask of wood alcohol. (It’s an accident: both the poison and a flask of potable gin have been stored in the same trunk. But as Gresham writes the incident, it’s one of those sinister acts of wish fulfillment, like Bruno’s murdering Guy’s blackmailing wife in Strangers on a Train.) Stan proves to be so good at the act that he soon outgrows it and takes it on the nightclub circuit, with a younger, prettier girlfriend as his assistant – Molly, whose carny performance used to involve an electric current and an alluring skimpy costume: sex and sci-fi “magic” intertwined. That’s when he crosses paths with a higher type of parasite, a psychoanalyst named Lilith who teams up with him to take advantage of her grieving patients. Stan and Lilith become lovers too, and their main target is a fabulously wealthy man named Ezra Grindle who is suffused with guilt over the fate of the girl he impregnated when he was a young man. Gresham never lets us forget how important a role sex plays in both low and high-class scams. (The Library of America, faithful purveyor of forgotten treasures, republished the book about a quarter of a century ago in a first-rate collection called Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s.)