Posted by woodjb on June 20, 2010
The popularity of many vintage films wax and wane, but there are some films that have such a loyal, cultish following that they seem to only gain notoriety with the passage of time. Such a film is Nightmare Alley.
It wasn’t issued on video until 2005, but its reputation was rock solid long before it was “certified” by a DVD release. Nightmare Alley was something you could only see at infrequent repertory screenings and in bootleg VHS tapes. It was a litmus test for self-proclaimed cineastes to test one another’s street cred. If you knew the film, you made the grade. If you hadn’t heard of it — well — then at least you had something to look forward to.
Made at Fox in 1947 by Broadway actor-turned-producer George Jessel, director Edmund Goulding (Dark Victory ) and screenwriter Jules Furthman (The Big Sleep , Only Angels Have Wings ), it is atypical film noir. Instead of bank heists and murders-for-hire, it involves carnival fakery and the lucrative business of phony spiritism. But film noir is not always defined by guns and crime, it might just as well be about boxing (The Set-Up ) or jazz musicians’ press agents (Sweet Smell of Success ). Noir was a visual style, a dramatic tone, and and a particularly dark sensibility.
Tyrone Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, a charismatic young man who realizes the traveling carnival is a great way to make money from chumps and to make time with a dame like Joan Blondell (in a wonderful mid-career turn as Zeena, the just-over-the-hill carny queen). After hustling his way up with a mind-reading act, Stan realizes the spook racket is a higher-stakes game and sets himself up as a paranormal, quasi-religious spiritual advisor-for-hire.
The purpose of this post is not to turn you on to the film. I’m guessing that any true Morlock is well acquainted with the picture. If not, be sure to read Paul Sherman’s review of the DVD for tcm.com, which is a great primer: http://www.tcm.com/movienews/index/?cid=96160
On this Father’s Day, 2010, I’d like to take a moment to shine the spotlight on the man behind the film: William Lindsay Gresham, who authored the 1946 novel upon which the film is based. Canonized in 1997 in the Library of America’s volume Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, Nightmare Alley has just been reissued in paperback by New York Review Books, with an introduction by Nick Tosches. It has also been rendered as a graphic novel by Spain Rodriguez (2003), and ran for about a month as a stage musical in Los Angeles (April/May 2010).
Gresham was born on August 20, 1909, in Baltimore, Maryland. He held a variety of jobs in his youth, and even did a stint as a Greenwich Village folk singer. In 1936, he finally found his calling, writing “fact crime” stories for pulp detective magazines.
In 1937, Gresham volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade after one of his best friends was killed while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Most writers would have freely embellished a manly adventure such as this, but Gresham (as was his character) is very matter-of-fact about it all. Writing in the third person, he reports that he served, “as an artillery observer (of sorts) at Teruel and later as a first-aid man with the 35th Anglo-American Battery. His service was undistinguished; he never held either military or political rank, was honorably discharged as a private.”
Back in the states, he resumed true detective writing and broadened his range and was published in something besides pulps: Theatre Arts Monthly, Click, and American Magazine.
It seems odd, at first, that Nightmare Alley was the only one of Gresham’s works to be adapted to film. But he only wrote two novels, and the other was Limbo Tower (1949), a grim and not especially cinematic tale of life in a modern tuberculosis ward (based on his year-long convalescence from the disease). Once he gained a foothold in the publishing racket, he began churning out dozens of short stories and essays for such periodicals as Esquire, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, and True. He might have written more novels but he was too busy making a living.
He wrote on a wide variety of topics but the subjects to which he most frequently returned were carnivals and magic (and the whiff of charlatanism that swirled around them). He dived into this topics wholeheartedly. Gresham wrote, “Bill Gresham is a firm believer in ‘getting in the act’ before writing a fact article. To do this he has been driven up the straight wall of a motordrome in a midget auto, has gone over the ramps with an auto ‘hell driver,’ has acted as a living target for a knife-thrower, has held the tail end of a king cobra while a professional snake-handler force fed the animal, has gotten into Capt. Frank F. Frakes’ ‘dynamite casket’ and set off the charge of dynamite, demolishing the ‘casket,’ and has learned to do a fire-eating act as taught to him by a ‘human salamander’ of the midway.” To better understand Houdini’s techniques, he made the acquaintance of 29-year-old James Randi and together they deconstructed the illusionist’s most famous tricks.
The one act he doesn’t confess to trying was that of the “geek.” For Gresham, the geek emblemized the depths to which humanity could sink, held in a cage, biting off the heads of chickens and snakes, and being paid with a bottle of booze. Even though we never see him, the geek is element of Nightmare Alley that lingers in the mind the longest.
These essays not only provided the background for Nightmare Alley, they also were the foundation of two book-length works: the astute biography Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959) and an expose of carnival life, Monster Midway (1954). His only other book was a how-to book on weightlifting, a hobby Gresham developed late in life.
To Gresham, the exploration of spiritual fakery was not merely a fruitful topic for publication, but something with roots running deep into his personality. Throughout his life, Gresham was seeker of spiritual truth. Late in life, he wrote, “Gresham was baptized an Episcopalian, at twenty wanted to be a Unitarian minister, was later a materialist, then joined the Presbyterian church.” He explored Buddhism, the I Ching, even Dianetics (but became disillusioned with that as well when, “[Hubbard] went off on a tangent with a butterfly net.”). Shortly before his death, he wrote, “He is not at present affiliated with any denomination but admits to a leaning toward the transcendentalism of Emerson with a great interest in the dynamic worldview of Zen Buddhism.”
At one point in my life, I became somewhat obsessed with Gresham. I had lunch with his former literary agent, Charles Schlessiger, who provided an introduction to Gresham’s widow, Renée Rodriguez Gresham (Renée’s first cousin). On September 30, 2002, I drove to Ocala, Florida to meet Renée. In her modest yet comfortable suburban home, she had carefully preserved Gresham’s manuscripts and correspondence, and unpacked boxes that contained a variety of personal items, including Gresham’s driver’s license from the early 1940s, his bundle of I Ching sticks, and a glass respirator for his TB-damaged lungs.
Renée also spoke frankly about Gresham’s controversial relationship to his previous wife, poet Joy Davidman. As you may remember, Davidman is the woman depicted by Debra Winger in Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands (1993). The film (and the play by William Nicholson upon which it is based) dramatizes Davidman’s illness and death, and her flowering relationship with writer C.S. Lewis. The “Shadowlands” story, as treated in numerous other books, has tended to be one-sided, usually because they are written by Lewis disciples with an innate distaste for the sort of vulgar writing with which Gresham scratched out a living. Lewis is deified and Davidman is sainted, while Gresham is… well… demonized. He was the American beast who wrote for — egads — pulp magazines.
The truth is, Gresham was a tortured soul. He was alcoholic and suicidal. Renée remembered, “There’s one story about he was in a rage and shot a shotgun into the ceiling because he was in a rage. And he [Bill] told me this. What happened was that he was trying to commit suicide and at the last minute jerked the thing out of the way.”
But it was the inner torment that makes his work so visceral and compelling. It was the quest for meaning that led Gresham to explore so many of life’s obscure alleyways and to pry into spiritual frauds. As Nick Tosches writes in his introduction to the new edition of Nightmare Alley, “Gresham’s novel is a tale of many things: the folly of faith and the cunning of those who peddle it; alcoholism and the destructive terror of delirium tremens; the playing deck of fate, which allots its death-bound destines without rhyme and without reason. What it is not is a tale of crime and punishment, sin and retribution. To see it as such is to misread it. What we consider to be crime and sin pervade this alley, but the punishment and retribution here seem more the wages of life itself.”
Eventually, he got involved in Alcoholics Anonymous (true to form, he began writing articles for their publication, The Grapevine). It was not an easy road to travel. ”Bill was in A.A. four years, then he had some psychotherapy and decided that he was a cured alcoholic, that he could drink again.” Renée told me, “And he had a ‘detour’ for four years and that was while he was living with me. And then he was in A.A. for four years til he died and I never worried about him.”
Once he was sober and in a stable relationship with Renée (by all accounts his marriage to Davidman was a train wreck), Gresham’s work didn’t mellow. If anything, it began to delve into the darker recesses of the human heart. This more nihilistic impulse was encouraged by the fact that he began writing for third-tier nudie magazines such as Gent, The Dude and Rogue, which allowed him to write more frankly than he had in The Saturday Evening Post. His short story “Room for One More” would have made a diabolical movie, a carnival-themed thriller about a hypnotist who uses his power to seduce a prudish young woman — with tragic results.
In time, the writing opportunities became more scarce, and Gresham cranked out stories and essays for obscure pocket-size men’s magazines, using multiple pseudonyms — not to hide his identity, but so he could plant numerous low-paying articles in a single issue.
He would no doubt have continued indefinitely had his health not deteriorated. He was blind in one eye due to cataracts, and was gradually losing sight in the other. He was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. On Friday, September 14, 1962, he had a 9:00 am appointment with a Park Avenue doctor to begin cancer treatment. But when he left his and Renée’s home in New Rochelle, NY, he didn’t go to the doctor. He checked into the Hotel Dixie and committed suicide with sleeping pills.
Of all the mementos Renée showed me, the most precious one was the parting note that Gresham left for her. It is filled with love, and is devoid of self-pity. It is calm, orderly, and direct. He reminds her to return his library books, to give various books and magic items to specific persons. He indicates his decision to be cremated rather than embalmed. ”I want no funeral service of any kind.”
Near the end, he adds, “If there is any interest in obituary material, there is a folder on the desk marked Publicity – W.L.G. This should be enough.” At the time, there wasn’t much interest in Gresham’s death. Paul Duncan writes in his essay “William Lindsay Gresham: Nothing Matters in This Goddamn Lunatic Asylum of a World but Dough” that, “The only tribute paid to him in The New York Times came from the bridge columnist.”
True, but it wasn’t as bad as it seems. It was the kind of obituary Gresham would have been proud of. “The card-playing world lost one of its best students in the death Sept. 14 of William L. Gresham, a novelist, amateur conjurer, and expert on the history of playing cards.” Instead of waxing poetic about his literary accomplishments, Albert H. Morehead devotes his column to a clinical analysis of a game in which Gresham (who didn’t care for bridge) was recruited as a “reluctant fourth.” “Gresham had the West hand and made the proper opening lead. East took his ace of clubs and shifted to the eight of spades…West led a spade and East took the king of spades and jack of hearts to defeat the contract.”
Renée Gresham has since passed away, and all her husband’s papers were donated to the Marion E. Wade Center of Wheaton College — much to the chagrin of true Gresham aficionados, since at Wheaton (motto: “For Christ and His Kingdom”) the papers are considered little more than an adjunct to their revered C.S. Lewis collection. The writers couldn’t have been more different. The believer and the skeptic — and it is ironic that their literary remains now reside under the same roof.
Ultimately, it is impossible to know where Gresham’s spiritual compass was pointing, or if he had abandoned the device entirely. His farewell note to Renée makes no mention of God or the hereafter. When he discusses his cremation, it is with almost unimaginable frankness. “The ‘ashes’ are really fragments of bone smashed up with a sledge hammer and are delivered to the family in a container. I think a good place to distribute these would be in Long Island Sound off the nearest dock or sea wall. I certainly don’t want to clutter up space in the good earth with them or have them in a vault. In all, just get things done as cheaply as possible for the kids constantly need shoes and supplies and let’s not spend money on superstition.”
What kind of man would say a thing like that? A talented, tormented writer whose body was worn out, whose reputation was in tatters, and who was just trying to be a good father.
Renée told me, “Truthfully, Bill was the love of my life. That hasn’t changed. I still dream about him. I remember one dream that I had Bill sort of laughed and he said, ‘We fooled ’em all. They think I’m dead but I’m not.’ Of course it was wishful thinking on my part. But he’s been dead forty years now. And he, in a way, is very much a part of my life. I never remarried. Because anyone that I met would never measure up to Bill — would fall short.”
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