Welcome to the Wednesday night/Thursday morning performance of BCB After Dark: your music, film and baseball festival for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. Please come on in out of the cold. Let us take your hat and coat. No dress code tonight. There’s a great table just on the left near the fire. Bring your own beverage.
BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon.
Last night I asked you what you thought Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal’s batting average would be in 2022. The leading vote-getter, with 38 percent, was somewhere between .300 and .309. In second place, with 27 percent, was .285 to .299. Third place was .310 to .319, checking in at 21 percent. Fully 69 percent of you thought that Madrigal would hit at least .300.
Now let’s see if Madrigal can actually stay healthy and get enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title.
We’re still in a lockout, but I guess there’s news.
I feel like I really had a lot to say about Nightmare Alley, so today we’ll finish that up. I hope some of you have something to say about it as well.
Here’s the part where I discuss jazz and movies. Feel free to skip to the baseball question at the end. You won’t hurt my feelings.
Somehow I declared this week to be Brazil week for the jazz section of this feature. But I might as well finish up the week that way.
Here’s a Brazilian singer that I’ve always liked, Rosalia De Souza, singing “D’improvviso.” This appears to be from Italian television in 2009. I don’t speak Portuguese, so I’m only assuming the lyrics she’s singing won’t get me into trouble. But if she’s singing a bunch of crazy conspiracy theories, just so you know I don’t endorse them. But I do think that if she was, some European in that audience would react.
Tonight we return to the 1947 film Nightmare Alley, directed by Edmund Goulding. I really haven’t been able to stop thinking about this picture since I first watched it the weekend before last. Some of that is because I was writing about it, but that’s really a sign of a quality movie. When I keep thinking of new things I want to mention, you know that’s a film that is worth watching.
By the way, my earlier essay on Nightmare Alley is here.
I wrote last time that Tyrone Power thought that the role of Stanton Carlisle was the role of his career as well as his best performance. Certainly no leading man of his era took as big a risk in playing a character with as few redeeming characteristics as Stan had. He’s an unusual character for noir in that he’s basically a career criminal, not someone who got fell into it by circumstances or a femme fatale. Stan admits at one point that he only cares about himself and he doesn’t know why that is.
Power desperately wanted a role like this one so that he could prove that he was an actor who could play a variety of types and not just a star, playing romantic heroes. But he doesn’t completely abandon the charisma that him a star. Instead, Power plays Stan as a common archetype today but one much rarer in the 1940s—the “charming psychopath.” Stan is a narcissist who gets the thrill of feeling superior when he cons one of the “rubes.” Changes in the script, demanded by the studio, also make the character of Stan more sympathetic. For one, he’s tormented with guilt over the death of another carny, although not to the point of admitting his role in it. Stan’s “shotgun marriage” to Molly also develops into a real one, with Stan genuinely falling in love with his wife during the course of the film.
Once again, Power is great in this film. Probably the best performance of his career. He thought so.
I mentioned that I haven’t seen the new Guillermo del Toro version of Nightmare Alley, but by sheer coincidence they showed a scene from it on Colbert on Tuesday night. The script may have been a word-for-word reproduction of the script from the 1947 version, but it was fascinating the way that Bradley Cooper played the part completely differently. Cooper played Stan in that scene as a desperate man who knew how badly things were going for him. Power plays Stan as a man in denial and still trying to play the con, even though he’s only conning himself by that point. Stan’s catchphrase of “I was made for it” had two completely different meanings in the two scenes. I can’t say whether or not one performance was better than the other, especially without having seen what led up to Cooper’s scene. I strongly suspect that it’s neither better or worse, just different.
You will never, ever see me write a bad word about Joan Blondell, who plays Zeena. The “Queen of Pre-Code” played a series of tough-talking, independent and sassy women in the early 1930s, and I’d highly recommend all of them. (I haven’t even seen all of them.) By the time Nightmare Alley came out, Blondell had transitioned into the older, supporting character roles that she would play for the rest of her career. But Blondell plays Zeena with an inner dignity, decency and morality that contrasts her character to that of Stan. Zeena’s defining trait is her loyalty, to both her alcoholic husband Pete and to the code of the carnival. Zeena is definitely tempted by the seductions of the younger Stan, but she chooses loyalty to Pete until fate gets in the way.
Zeena is also a contradiction in that she knows the mentalist act that she and Pete perform is a scam, but unlike Stan, she actually believes that mysticism is real. You can make the connection to the career of Harry Houdini if you want. Houdini spent much of his life unmasking psychic frauds, but that was because he was looking for a real one.
Helen Walker is chilling as Dr. Lilith Ritter, and she’s the main villain of the piece. It’s an interesting contrast from the way that most films of the period portrayed the psychological profession. In postwar Los Angeles, psychology and therapy were all the rage, and pretty much everyone in Hollywood had a therapist who would help guide them through their problems. This character then worked its way into the movies, as screenwriters began to portray the therapist as a heroic supporting character in their scripts. But Lilith isn’t that character at all.
Lilith’s psychological training allows her to instantly recognizes Stan as a fellow psychopath. Her offer to take him in as a patient is designed to manipulate him, not help him. Walker’s best scene is the final confrontation between the two con artists. The scene plays out in a way where the audience can’t really be sure whether Stan has gone really insane or Lilith is just gaslighting him. Walker’s performance plays it down the middle, leaving it up for debate when the film ends.
Poor Coleen Gray, who plays the young Molly. She can’t keep up with those three, but she’s solid nonetheless and occasionally gets a chance to shine. Part of her problem is that the part of Molly is a fairly stock ingenue who falls in love with a bad boy. She has a lot of Zeena in her as well in that her ultimate decency plays a big role in Stan’s downfall. That connection between Molly and Zeena is intentional. Molly is the young Zeena, before life has beaten her down.
Molly also gets stuck with a lot of exposition and the thankless role of warning Pete that he’s violating the laws of God, much as Victor Frankenstein was warned in a more famous movie.
The theme of Nightmare Alley revolves around a character who is barely seen in the film: the geek. For those who don’t know, the geek is not someone who fixes your computer at Best Buy. Rather, the geek was a popular sideshow attraction where a man would lie in a pit filled with bones and animal carcasses and bite the head off a live chicken for the entertainment of the masses. Often they were portrayed as a “missing link” character who was half-man, half-beast. In reality, the geek was a hopeless alcoholic or drug addict who was willing to do anything for a bottle of moonshine a day and a place to sleep it off.
Even carnies thought the geek was distasteful, and the film makes that point early on. Stan even says to Zeena “I can’t understand how anyone could sink so low.” That’s a major point of the movie. While the geek is only seen in the distance and in the shadows, his cries are heard throughout the film. Whenever there is a major turning point in the film, director Edmund Goulding sticks the screams of the geek on the soundtrack. Are those audio cues just atmosphere, or does Stan really hear the cries of the geek in his head? It’s a good question.
Spoilers for a 74-year-old (but quite possibly also a one-month old) film to follow:
Stanton “Stan” Carlisle is an ex-con who has found a home as a barker for a traveling carnival. The show has two big attractions: a mind reading act by “Mademoiselle Zeena” and a “geek.” Stan quickly learns that Zeena and her husband Pete (Ian Keith) used to be a big-time Vaudeville act until Pete descended into alcoholism.
Stan discovers that Zeena and Pete’s original act used a word code and that Zeena has been offered a lot of money for the code, but she refuses to sell. Pete tries to seduce the older Zeena in an attempt to pry the code out of her. Zeena is certainly tempted by the attentions of the handsome Stan, but her loyalty to Pete (and the demands of the Production Code) have her break off the affair before it gets started. Zeena is also worried about a tarot card reading she did for Pete, which forecast doom for him.
So Stan instead tries to get the mentalist code out of Pete instead by buddying up to him. Hanging out together after dark, Stan plans to offer Pete a bottle of moonshine, despite Zeena insisting that no one give Pete any alcohol. (This breech of trust by Stan is his first major violation of the carny honor code.) But as the two are hanging out, they are interrupted by the screams of the geek, who has escaped from his pen. In the confusion that follows, Stan mistakes some wood alcohol that Zeena uses in her act for the moonshine that he’d purchased for Pete. (And seriously Zeena. That’s why you label such things clearly and prominently.) Pete drinks the wood alcohol and is found dead the next morning. Only Stan knows the truth about what happened and he tells no one. But in the first sign that Stan is a failure at even being a psychopath, he is tormented by guilt over the incident.
With Pete dead, Zeena has no choice but to teach the code to Stan to carry on the act. In order to teach the act quickly, Zeena also teaches it to young Molly, the beautiful “Electra Girl” who does an act where arcs of electricity come out of her body in a show business version of some of your more dramatic high school science electricity demonstrations.
Now that he knows the mentalist code, Stan no longer has any reason to seduce the older Zeena. Instead, he turns his attentions to Molly, and the two of them are caught in a tryst by Bruno the strongman. The carny code demands that the two of them get married. They’re also forced to leave the carnival in humiliation.
Stan is a man who takes every setback as just another opportunity, and he quickly realizes that Molly knows the mentalist code and that the two of them could do the act even better than Zeena could. Soon, the two of them are doing the mentalist act in the fanciest nightclubs in Chicago for the richest people in town.
One of the guests at the nightclub is Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychologist to the rich and famous. She tries to trick “The Great Stanton” by asking if her mother will get better, but Stan correctly replies that her mother is actually dead. That Stan got that right intrigues Lilith, who wonders if he actually has mental powers. Stan just blows it off as a good cold read and that he sensed she was being dishonest. As Stan tells her later, it takes one to catch one.
Meanwhile, Zeena and Bruno stop by for a visit. Zeena does another tarot card reading for Stan, with the same result of doom that she got for the one she did for Pete earlier in the film. Stan dismisses it as mumbo-jumbo and kicks Zeena and Bruno out.
Lilith has been recording her wealthy patients’ therapy sessions, and Stan realizes that is a gold mine when it comes to his mind-reading act. Soon, Stan, with the help of Lilith’s recordings, is “communicating” with the dead relatives of these wealthy Chicagoans. Stan is also having therapy sessions with Dr. Ritter himself, as he is still tormented with guilt over the death of Pete.
As Stan is still married to Molly, any possible sexual relationship between Stan and Lilith is left unsaid, thanks to the Production Code.
These rich society ladies and gentlemen pay Stan enormous amounts of money to communicate with their dead loved ones. A wealthy benefactor gives Stan $150,000 after using the recordings of his therapy sessions with Lilith to convince him he’s for real. He promises Stan even more money if he can see his former love, now deceased for 35 years.
This move into talking to the dead upsets Molly a great deal. Conning the rubes out of a few bucks is one thing for Molly, but now Stan is tampering with the dead and he’s tempting God’s wrath. She wants nothing to do with it. But Stan appeals to her love and he gets her to impersonate the old man’s dead lover. (According to the novel, she died in an illegal abortion. That is left unmentioned in the film.)
The plan is all going well as Stan meets with the man and a ghostly Molly appears dressed in old-fashioned clothes from a distance. He’s totally fooled. But when the man breaks down and starts crying and begging for forgiveness, Molly’s decency means she can’t keep the act up anymore. Stan is revealed to be a fraud. He assaults the old man and starts running.
Stan goes back to Lilith to tell her what happened and plan their next move. Lilith gives him the $150,000 that they had already conned out of the man and Stan goes to meet Molly as they are planning to leave town ahead of the law. But when Stan checks the money in the cab on the way to the train station, he finds out that Lilith has switched the money and that there’s only $150 in there.
He goes back and confronts Lilith about her scam. But Lilith instead insists that Stan is delusional about the idea that she’s running a scam with him. It’s part of his guilt over the murder of Pete. We know at this point Lilith is gaslighting Stan, but then we hear the sound of police sirens. Lilith says she hears nothing and we truly can’t be sure if Stan is hallucinating the sirens or Lilith is just continuing the gaslight him. It’s a terrific scene.
Stan sends Molly away to find the carnival, not wanting for her to be around when the police catch up to him. Stan then wanders around, trying to stay ahead of the police and descending into homelessness and alcoholism. At this point, Tyrone Power allows himself to look about as bad as any big star of the 1940s ever dared look.
Finally, Stan finds a traveling carnival and in desperation, asks for a job. The boss tells him that he’s got no use for a mentalist show, but the carnival code demands that he offer a fellow carny a job. He’s got one position available—the geek. (And a temporary geek job at that.) Stan, who once wondered how anyone could sink so low as to be a geek, just says his catchphrase: “Mister, I was made for it.”
This is where the book ends, but the studio thought that ending was way too bleak. So they ordered a scene added where Stan goes berserk and as it just so happened, this carnival was where Molly had ended up. Molly rescues Stan and the two of them embrace in a declaration of their love for each other.
So Molly’s love saves Stan from the fate of being the geek, but Stan’s life has still come full circle. Molly and Stan have become Zeena and Pete instead, and we know things did not end up well for Pete. Pete wasn’t reduced to biting the heads off of live chickens for a bottle of moonshine, however.
So yeah, that ending is still pretty dark, but it’s not quite as dark as it could be, nor is it as dark as what I assume the new version ends with.
I’ve really said too much about Nightmare Alley at this point and I could probably say a lot more. That’s a sign of a quality film. As I wrote earlier in the week, there are a few moments in the film where the Production Code gets in the way of the plot and the ending seems like a compromise that was going to make no one happy, although it’s not a bad ending.
Nightmare Alley is so different from most any other noir film of the period, and that is probably why I keep thinking about it. Most noirs have an everyman that the audience could identify with. They’re basically decent people with a tragic flaw that leads them to disaster. Stan was a corrupt, albeit charming, man from the very beginning who’s big flaw was thinking the cons that the rich and powerful pull were the same as the tricks they pulled on the rubes at the carnival, just on a different scale. Stan trusts Dr. Ritter to a bizarre degree, presumably thinking that a con like her would follow the same carny code of honor that he had dealt with before. That was his biggest mistake. His other mistake was not listening to the other two women in his life, Zeena and Molly, who actually did have his best interests at heart. They warned him he was going against fate and God, and he didn’t listen. The film ends the question of “How does a man get that low” by answering “By reaching too high.”
Here’s a scene where Pete convinces Stan how easy it is to con a sucker with the mentalist act.
Welcome back to those of you who skip the jazz and movies. I was going to ask you today if you’d be willing to be a geek for a chance to be on the Cubs 26-man roster, but then those who skipped the movie discussion would be confused. Also, I’m not sure what David Ross would do with a geek on the bench.
So I thought I’d ask you about the possibility of the Cubs re-signing Kris Bryant. Bryant hasn’t been connected to the Cubs that much, other than a few leaks that say that the Cubs have not ruled it out. So it’s possible, but it doesn’t sound that likely.
But if it were to happen, how would you feel about it. Would you be excited about the return of a Cubs legend? Or would you feel that the Cubs could have spent the money better on someone else?
I don’t think I need to tell you much about Kris Bryant. I also don’t think anyone around here would be angry if Bryant returned. We all love Bryant and he deserves all the love that he gets from the Wrigley faithful.
But if the Cubs were to sign Bryant, they almost certainly wouldn’t be signing anyone else this winter after the lockout ends. And maybe you feel that the Cubs have more pressing needs than to bring back a third baseman/corner outfielder. And Bryant is certainly not the same player he was his first three years in the league, although he’s still pretty darn good.
So how would you feel if Bryant came back to the Cubs this spring?
How would you feel if the Cubs signed free agent Kris Bryant?
This poll is closed
Yay! Who would complain about the return of one of the greatest Cubs ever?
Nay! Love the guy, but the money should be spent elsewhere.
Meh. I’d have mixed feelings and I can’t decide.
And it’s last call for another week of BCB After Dark. Please tip your waitstaff generously. Drive home safely. Stay warm. Be kind to each other. And please stop by again next week for another edition of BCB After Dark.