Like others say, this isn’t exactly a conventional film noir. But it’s darker than many noirs. Not to mention creepy, grimy, sordid, and dirty. The title is the first hint as to what’s in store–and it doesn’t disappoint. The carnival theme itself is a great backdrop for the shadowy and surreal; for instance, what other business has The Geek as a job title? And the characters, to varying degrees, are duped by their own hocus-pocus. The performances are solid, not just Tyrone Power’s Stan, but the three women (Colleen Grey, Joan Blondell, and Helen Walker) in very diverse roles.
Deception, manipulation, and fraud make the crimes and petty criminals here as cheap as they come. Too keep things relatively balanced, Molly (Grey) is thoroughly decent and likeable. Stan seems on-the-level too; but he keeps ratcheting up the stakes, getting over on Zeena (Blondell) and Molly at the same time. “You think I can make the big time again?” Zeena implores Stan, as he steers her away from her alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith). Sort of by osmosis, alcohol is everywhere here. In fact, alcohol’s effects, including auditory hallucinations, are as disturbing as similar scenes in The Lost Weekend. At one point Pete uses a bottle as though it’s a crystal ball–ominously, as it’s some sort of white-lightning that proves fatal. Meanwhile, Bruno (Mike Mazurki) can’t take his eyes off Molly. Sure, Pete and Bruno are not very appealing types, but at least they’re honest with their feelings, Stan really hasn’t any feelings.
Bamboozling the sheriff is a great farcical scene; but it has the sinister impact of throwing the outside world off-track. The carnies prove a law unto themselves. But Stan isn’t satisfied by fooling outsiders; everyone around him–even Molly–is kept in the dark. He meets his match in Lilith (Helen Walker). She’s pretty much the antithesis of his deal. She’s polished and professional, and she’s up to something. But, like the other women here, she has a thing for him. Calling her bluff is a cunning move, as it sets up a useful collaboration to bilk a wealthy couple.
Meanwhile, Stan is fingered by fate. Although he tries to dismiss Zeena’s Tarot reading as “nothing but…gypsy cards”, he takes it seriously. Maybe Lilith is right, that Stan feels guilty about enabling Pete’s death. Strangely, his mentalist/hoax powers sort of blend in his climactic ‘trance.’ The hoaxing is sort of an addiction–he can’t let down the people he’s fooled–so he has to keep fooling them. Molly sabotages her ‘reincarnation’ of the mark’s long-dead lover; what’s probably worse for Stan is Lilith’s double-cross. Then she has to rub it in by treating her betrayal as symptoms of his ‘delusional state’.
Stan has to do his own disappearing act. Ambiguously, he pretty much becomes a nobody. Actually, it’s a brilliant pose, as he’ll definitely blend in with the carnie crowd. The problem is he plays the role too well, falling into a Pete-like alcoholic tail-spin. The ending, with the maze of trailers and tents is every bit as menacing and claustrophobic as the alleys and trainyards in mainstream noir.
This is a long, complex movie. The deception theme is explored from multiple angles, so that it’s not always clear who deceives who, and to what purpose. Highly recommended for the many good performances, the unusual plot with its multiple settings, and the very jarring film noir shading.