Film Review: Nightmare Alley (1947)

Release Date: October 9th, 1947
Directed by: Edmund Goulding
Written by: Jules Furthman
Based on: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
Music by: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Mike Mazurki

20th Century Fox, 110 Minutes

Review:

“Wait a minute mister, you’re not talking to one of your chumps. You’re talking to your wife! You’re talking to somebody who knows you red, white and blue. And you can’t fool me anymore.” – Molly

A film-noir starring Tyrone Power? Okay, you’ve got my attention and that’s all it took!

I love film-noir but before my love affair with that cinematic style, I was a huge fan of classic swashbuckling movies. Many of the greatest Hollywood swashbucklers starred the charismatic and ruggedly beautiful Tyrone Power. If there was ever a guy I’d go gay for, Tyrone Power is probably it.

You can’t deny the man’s charm, his presence and the fact that he oozes with coolness and masculinity. Plus, he is a guy that has a lot of fun in his roles. Here, he is mostly serious and less playful than he was as Zorro or as Jamie Waring in The Black Swan (the 1940s swashbuckler not the creepy Natalie Portman ballerina movie from a few years back).

What makes this such a unique experience is that it’s a noir that takes place at a carnival. Well, large portions of the film. It’s like The Maltese Falcon meets Freaks. Okay, it’s not that extreme and there aren’t really any “freaks” in the movie. There’s just a “geek” but that is a pretty important archetype, as you will see by the end of the film.

Tyrone Power plays a con man named Stan. Stan finds himself at a traveling carnival where he witnesses the crafty “psychic” Zeena, who uses an elaborate code with her showman husband, in an effort to name objects her husband displays from onlookers, while she is blindfolded. Power obsesses over the trick and must discover the secret of the code. He kills Zeena’s husband, albeit accidentally, and uses the opportunity to romance her in an effort to be her next partner. She eventually lets him in on her crafty carnival scheme. Stan, all the while, has been romancing the younger Molly, and when the two are exposed, they are forced out of the carnival community. Stan uses this to his advantage though, as he travels to Chicago and uses the carnival trick to make himself a superstar. Of course, this is noir, and there can be no real happy ending for Stan and his cons.

As much as I love Tyrone Power for that playfulness I mentioned earlier, he has never been better than this, where his playfulness is put on the back burner. Sure, he was great alongside the legendary Orson Welles in Prince of Foxes, but he was still his typical fun and charming character and even got to swashbuckle a little in that film. Here, in Nightmare Alley, he truly shows who he is, as an actor, when he is able to shed the baggage of what Hollywood thought he should be.

While this film wasn’t an immediate success, it is now considered a classic and for good reason. It is the best I have ever seen Tyrone Power, period. And the creation of this movie was all in Power’s hands. You see, he bought the rights to the novel and decided to star in this because he wanted to break being typecast as swashbucklers. 20th Century Fox obliged him and he got to have his movie made. While it didn’t work out commercially, upon release, in the years since, it worked to Tyrone Power’s advantage as later generations have something to look at to see how accomplished the man was on screen and that he had a range beyond the majority of the roles he was pushed into.

Truthfully, Nightmare Alley is really a top ten film-noir. There are only a few films better than it in the noir style. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, that are nowhere near as good.

Nightmare Alley is the high point of Tyrone Power’s career, from an acting perspective. At least, I haven’t come across anything greater, at this point, but I have watched a ton of Power’s films. He took a risk with this but it paid off, in the long term. After actors come and go, it’s that legacy that they leave behind that lives on for generations. This is the peak of Tyrone Power’s incredible legacy, as an actor.

Film Review: Prince of Foxes (1949)

Release Date: December 23rd, 1949
Directed by: Henry King
Written by: Milton Krims
Based on: Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Tyrone Power, Orson Welles

20th Century Fox, 107 Minutes

Review:

“It is my belief that everything, even death, can be turned into profit.” – Cesare Borgia

Prince of Foxes re-teams director Henry King with his swashbuckling star Tyrone Power. It also adds Orson Welles to the mix as the famous tyrant Cesare Borgia. The fact that I get to see two of my favorite actors play off of each other, is the real treat of this film.

While the poster and the subject matter may make you think that this is a big swashbuckler (albeit in Renaissance Italy), there is very little swordplay and it is more of a historical war drama with a bit of romance and some swashbuckling elements just lightly sprinkled in.

Orson Welles is the perfect Cesare Borgia. While I didn’t live in 1500 and can’t compare the two men, Welles’ personification greatly embodies the spirit of what Borgia was, historically speaking. The power, the boldness, the heartlessness and the ability to conquer for the sake of ego and wealth. Orson Welles captures this and adds in his own cool and eloquent qualities. He also looks like a Renaissance era Sith lord.

Tyrone Power walks into the film with a smile and unrelenting charm but that is why he was a favorite to star in these sort of pictures. His acting chops and masculine presence are strong enough to stand in front of Welles’ Borgia and to hold his ground. While Welles typically outshines most, Power doesn’t lose his presence in the picture and it is still very much his movie.

The film, where possible, made use of accurate locations and historical structures in an effort to make Prince of Foxes as authentic as possible. The world truly feels real and lived in. It doesn’t feel as if these men are just on some Hollywood back lot or in a studio.

The cinematography is lush and lively, even for a black and white picture that came out in the film-noir 40s. The costumes are perfect, the sets are finely ornamented and the attention to detail is pretty astounding. The sound is also pristine, which must have been a challenge with the on location shooting.

Prince of Foxes is neither my favorite Tyrone Power or Orson Welles picture. However, it was still a film of high quality that brought these two giants together. It kind of holds a special place for me because of that. And I’ve always loved tales of the infamous Borgia family.

Film Review: Captain From Castile (1947)

Release Date: December 25th, 1947
Directed by: Henry King
Written by: Lamar Trotti
Based on: Captain From Castile by Samuel Shellabarger
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Tyrone Power, Jean Peters, Cesar Romero

Twentieth Century Fox, 141 Minutes

captain_from_castileReview:

I have Captain From Castile listed as a swashbuckling film. The main reason, is because it stars swashbuckling bad ass Tyrone Power. Also, it features lots of swords and people traveling by ship. It is a picture on the verge of swashbuckling greatness but falls short and never really gives you what you’re looking for in that regard.

That doesn’t mean it is a bad film. It is actually a good historical adventure.

The story sees Power’s Pedro de Vargas help an Aztec slave escape his cruel master. He finds himself in trouble and must flee the Inquisition. He later rescues Jean Peter’s Catana Perez. Then he meets an adventurer and they are then swept away to the New World, Mexico to be exact. The film then revolves around the invasion of Mexico by Cortez.

It is a fairly long movie at 141 minutes but it probably could’ve been edited down significantly. There are a lot of sections of the film that drag on too long or where it seems like not enough is happening. The better sequences make up for that though,

Tyrone Power is typical Tyrone Power. Although, he has less to do, not being able to fence his way through baddies and all. It also stars the always enjoyable Cesar Romero and introduces us to the talents of Jean Peters.

The film was directed by the accomplished Henry King, known for Twelve O’Clock High The Snows of KilimanjaroThe Song of BernadetteCarouselLove is a Many-Splendored ThingThe Gunfighter and Jesse James – just to name some of his dozens of movies.

The trailers for the film are in black and white but the movie itself is actually in vibrant Technicolor. The visuals are mesmerizing and the film has a certain feeling of realism, as it was filmed on location in Mexico – utilizing authentic active volcanoes and shooting around real lava beds. The volcanic ash actually created issues on set but the film still turned out to be visually stunning. The filmmakers were ambitious but accomplished what they set out to do from a visual perspective.

The biggest negative of the film is how it ends. It doesn’t really have a proper conclusion, it just sort of stops in what feels like the middle of the story. Almost as if this was the first part of a trilogy that was never completed. The picture only covers the first half of the novel it is based on. This issue, mixed with how long it was and how some scenes could have been cut or edited down, makes the movie feel like a long pilot for a television show that was never picked up and left dangling story-wise.

I do like the film, it just needed more refinement from a narrative standpoint. Tyrone Power never disappoints and he certainly didn’t in Captain From Castile.

Film Review: The Black Swan (1942)

Release Date: December 4th, 1942 (USA)
Directed by: Henry King
Written by: Ben Hecht, Seton I. Miller
Based on: The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara

20th Century Fox, 85 Minutes

the-black-swanReview:

Not to be confused with that movie where Queen Amidala turns into a lesbian mutant bird ballerina, this is the much superior film to carry the name Black Swan. And sure, Aronofsky’s film was fine and dandy but this is swashbuckling! Swashbuckling always wins!

The Black Swan stars the always magnificent Tyrone Power. Another great swashbuckling actor who died way too soon like Errol Flynn. I guess they didn’t choose the swash life but the swash life chose them.

This film sees Power’s character Jamie Waring leave the life of piracy in an effort to help another former pirate, Captain Morgan, clean up the British waters around the Caribbean. This leads Waring into a situation where he must go head-to-head with the Black Swan and Captain Leech, his once friend.

Maureen O’Hara plays Lady Margaret, who is the daughter of the former governor. Waring takes a liking to Margaret but she is set to marry English gentleman Roger Ingram. Ingram however, is feeding information to the pirates. Waring abducts Margaret to save her from marrying Ingram and because he is smitten with her. This leads to Waring and Margaret finding themselves having to work together to outwit the sinister Captain Leech.

The Black Swan won an Oscar for cinematography. It was also nominated for best special effects and the best musical score. All three of those things were great in this film. The cinematography was beautiful. The attention to detail and set design was perfect while the lighting and atmosphere were awe-inspiring for the time. The final battle between the ships was executed marvelously and holds up today.

The sword fighting scenes were also well-executed and some of the best I’ve seen in classic swashbuckling pictures. The only complaint about it, was that the fighting sequences were sped up and the action felt rushed and a bit unnatural. I think it would’ve played better had it been edited in at normal speed. Then again, speeding it up a bit hides imperfections. Also, this was common practice in Hollywood, at the time.

The Black Swan is a fun movie but that’s the whole point of swashbucklers. Tyrone Power is just as good of a leading man in this genre as Errol Flynn. Also, Tyrone Power certainly likes running around with his shirt off a lot more than Flynn.