Sunday, December 6, 2009

The original geek

Nowadays, we think of geeks as computer-savvy types, or other nerd-like people. The term actually dates back a century or more, however, and referred not to computer-types, since there were no computers then, but a type of carnival performer who shocked the crowds by biting the heads off of live animals. This use of "geek" can be seen in the movie Nightmare Alley, showing up tomorrow at 10:00 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

Tyrone Power stars as a carny whose job it is to draw people in to the act of phony mentalist Zeena (played by Joan Blondell). She's got an alcoholic husband (Ian Keith), but stays with him because twenty years earlier, the two of them had a very successful vaudeville mentalist act based on an elaborate code. Everybody would like that code, but the two aren't about to give it out. That is, not until the husband dies when Power mistakenly gives him some of Zeena's wood alcohol. Power eventually learns Zeena's code, and falls in love with fellow carnival performer Coleen Gray, making her a partner in what is going to be his new mentalist act.

This act becomes a huge hit on the Chicago nightclub circuit, wowing the upper class of Chicago society, and intriguing psychologist Helen Walker, who knows there has to be a code of some sort, but is unable to figure it out. It turns out, as well, that she's got a secret behind her work as well -- namely, that she's been recording the sessions with her patients, and when Power figures this out, he engages in a mutual blackmail plot with the head-shrinker to bilk her patients out of their money; he using the information gleaned from her analysis recordings. Needless to say, this goes against all the virtues of the Production Code, so you know it's not going to end up well for poor Tyrone Power.

Power's fall is just as swift as his rise, and almost as shocking, as he ends up reminiscent of Zeena's late husband. Although his partner Gray is horrified by the way he's bilking those rich people, she's still in love with him and willing to stay with him, if only she could find him -- she's had to go back to the carnival. The psychiatrist's fate is left largely unexamined. Surely she should have her license revoked for what she did, but the film doesn't focus on this. That's because the movie is about Power and his character, and he give a performance to match.

Fox has released a lot of its 1940s noirs to DVD, and even though Nightmare Alley isn't quite as much of a noir as a lot of movies, it still got released to DVD as part of the Fox noir set. At least it's been released to DVD.

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