Ehsan Khoshbakht and Bill Morrison
Screening sponsored by C.P.Company
In 2012, George Willeman, the nitrate vault manager of the Library of Congress’s Audio Visual Conservation Center on the Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia, alerted me to a uniquely decayed film from their vaults. It was a reel from Pawns of Passion (1928), a silent German production known as Liebeshölle in its original language, which translates as “Love Hell.” The film had been donated to the Library by Bruce Lawton, Jr., who after the sudden death of a colleague, had come into possession of a large cache of nitrate films that had been stored for the better part of the century in a barn in Pennsylvania.
… The backstory of Pawns of Passion involves a Russian ballerina who, after having been separated from her young son in 1917, throws herself into the Seine in Paris, whereupon she is rescued by an artist … It is a rumination on love, and the borderline separating two souls, seemingly from the precipice of consciousness. The film is walking this same line. Left to rot in a barn, and then scanned and archived again for another eight years on my own personal hard drive, it has found a new life through David Lang’s words and music, and Angel Blue’s voice. What survives are these few images pulled from the river Styx, between this earth and the underworld.
Cast and Credits
Parole e musica: David Lang. Mus.: Angel Blue (voce), Bryan Wagorn (direttore), David Creswell (viola), Anja Wood (violoncello), Miles Salerni (percussioni). Prod. Audio: Marlan Berry. Prod.: Bill Morrison DCP.
It was George Jessel, the renowned music-hall actor turned film producer, who got Fox to buy the rights to William Lindsay Gresham’s strange novel, whose chapters take their titles from the 22 Tarot cards. And it was Tyrone Power, in an effort to change his screen image, who wanted to play the lead role, to the consternation of both Jessel himself and studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck …
Power demanded the appointment of Goulding, who had directed him the previous year in an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Razor’s Edge. A director who had worked with major stars like Garbo and Bette Davis, Goulding was himself an eccentric outsider … He had a penchant for unusual characters, which his patchy and somewhat conventional career to date had not allowed him to fully develop. But he came into his own with Nightmare Alley, which introduces a ‘villain’ like no other: essentially, a man fascinated by the idea of a fall from grace, particularly his own, which he sees as inevitable. Power is remarkable in this role, as in many others, where he had already displayed the extraordinary range of his talent, notably a tendency towards ambiguity (as in In Old Chicago).
The adaptation of Jules Furthman’s novel is dense, concise, very well-paced, and full of attention-grabbing ellipses, although some episodes are not devoid of artifice (eg Stan and Molly’s forced marriage). With the able support of Lee Garmes’ magnificent photography, Goulding’s icy, disquieting and dynamic staging explores the underbelly of American showbusiness. It portrays Power’s character as a man of the masses, with frequent shots of him walking through the crowd, like a fox stalking its prey. Then he transforms him into a man elevated from the crowd, because this complex character also has a perilous sense of superiority and superpower, which he has clearly detected in himself … While the final scenes … lean towards a clichéd happy ending, the final denouement – with Carlisle becoming the ‘Geek’ who had so fascinated him at the start – refuses to moralise and follows the fatal logic that dominates the plot and character throughout the film.
Jacques Lourcelles, Dictionnaire du cinéma. Les films, Éditions Robert Laffont, Paris 1992
There was a moment in American letters in which this underbelly of modern America started to be addressed – a lot of that congealed around noir writing, the pulp detectives and novels. But there are other pieces of writing, like The Day of the Locust, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Nightmare Alley, that address this intersection of the modern and the visceral in a very interesting way. The original novel, when it was written, was right at the crossroads of the modern notion of psychoanalysis, kind of jamming that with the occult powers of the tarot, and the idea of travelling carnivals and spiritualism used to defraud the gullible. It’s a really interesting mixture of things – I don’t like things straight, I like to combine things that in theory should not go together. Like a post-civil war struggle in Spain and fairytale; or a mix of a Douglas Sirk melodrama with an amphibian god and a sexual-awakening love story.
Guillermo Del Toro, “The Observer”, 13 September 2020
Cast and Credits
T. it.: La fiera delle illusioni. Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo (1946) di William Lindsay Gresham. Scen.: Jules Furthman. F.: Lee Garmes. M.: Barbara McLean. Scgf.: Lyle Wheeler, J. Russell Spencer. Mus.: Cyril J. Mockridge. Int.: Tyrone Power (Stan Carlisle), Joan Blondell (Zeena), Coleen Gray (Molly), Helen Walker (Lilith Ritter), Taylor Holmes (Ezra Grindle), Mike Mazurki (Bruno), Ian Keith (Pete), Julia Dean (Mrs. Peabody). Prod.: George Jessel per 20th Century-Fox Film Corp. DCP. Bn.
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