An Acting Lesson from ‘Nightmare Alley’

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

Here’s a speech from “Nightmare Alley” that gives a fine example of how much an actor can bring to fairly humdrum material. This speech is spoken twice in the picture — the first time, by a fine actor named Ian Keith; the second time, by Tyrone Power, a fine movie star, but a dismal actor.

Keith plays an alcoholic carny, who was once a celebrated mentalist.  While reminiscing about his glory days, he goes into the act that made him famous.

Keith: Throughout the ages, man has sought to look behind the veil that hides him from tomorrow. And through the ages, certain men have looked into the polished crystal and seen. Is it some quality of the crystal itself, or does the gazer merely use it to turn his gaze inward? Who knows? But visions come, slowly shifting their form . . . visions come. Wait! The shifting shapes begin to clear. I see fields of grass and rolling hills and a boy. A boy is running barefoot through the hills. A dog is with him. A dog is with him.

Power: Yes. His name was Gyp. Go on.

Keith: See how easy it is to hook ’em? Stock reading: fits everybody! What’s youth? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy has a dog. I’m just an old drunk, an old lush. Zeena’ll be mad.  Good old Zeena . . .

The material isn’t bad, but it’s certainly not great. It’s no better or worse than the patter from a hundred other phony psychics. But look at what Keith does with it.

Now have a look at Power’s version of the same speech, much later in the picture. Some words are different and Power’s version is a little more cumbersome, with some stuff at the end about a grey-haired mother waiting at a gate. He, therefore, has a little more to work with, but you’ll see that he casts nothing like Ian Keith’s magic spell. Not even close.  Yet the script has been at pains to make us understand that Power’s character is as effective a mentalist as Ian Keith’s was in his heyday.

The speech presents several interesting acting challenges. To draw the audience in, the actor must seem to be in earnest, even though, in both cases, we know that he’s a phony. Both actors do appear to be entirely sincere, but the effect could hardly be more dissimilar. Power takes many of the same pauses that Keith takes, emphasizes the same words . . . but to very little effect. What’s wrong?  Broadly speaking, it’s that Power’s version is too straight-forward, too matter-of-fact. The subtle variations in the writing make Power’s version more wordy and less poetic, but I don’t believe the writing is the main problem — his interpretation is. Listen to the way the two actors handle the line “Every boy has a dog.” Power says it like an anchorman reading the news; the line means what it means on the surface and nothing else.  Keith says it accusingly, almost hysterically, with an interesting rising inflection; the subtext is “What suckers they all are!” And listen to the extraordinary difference between Keith’s reading of “See how easy it is to hook ’em?” and Power’s. In Keith’s, the line is full of scorn, of hatred for the suckers who used to fall for his act — there’s a whole life in that one line. Power’s reading is simple bemusement bordering on apathy.  Keith pulls you in, then turns on you and laughs in your face. Power doesn’t pull you in, and doesn’t have the firepower to laugh in your face.

The repeated sentence (“A dog is with him. A dog is with him.”) presents a nice little technical challenge.  For a  good actor, it is axiomatic that repetitions must never be taken at face value.  It is never enough merely to say a line twice; the repetition must have more or different emphasis, richer subtext, carry new meaning, or justify its existence in some other, recognizable way. Ian Keith handles the repetition expertly:  the first time, it’s straight-forward description. The second time, he speaks more caressingly, as a hypnotist would; he puts more emphasis on “dog,” as if to suggest that the word has special meaning to him — or to his audience — and he elongates the “m” in the final word, “himmmm.”  His reading coaxes the response out of Power, who answers involuntarily, as if in a hypnotic trance.

There are other, less overt repetitions in the speech, as well. First, there is: “But visions come, slowly shifting their form . . . visions come.” This form of repetition, in which the beginning word or clause is repeated at the end of the sentence or phrase, is a time-honored figure of speech known as epanalepsis, but it’s only effective if the actor emphasizes it.  Then there is:  ” . . . rolling hills and a boy.  A boy is running barefoot through the hills.”  The repetition of an ending word or phrase at the beginning of the next sentence or clause is called anadiplosis. And one other thing to note:  “A boy is running barefoot through the hills” is in strict iambic pentameter; Ian Keith stresses the iambs, which gives the line wonderful rhythmic propulsion. These figures of speech and regular metrical beats don’t just happen:  they’re carefully planned, they give a speech structure and shape. It’s a bad mistake, a cardinal sin, not to put them to use — but first, an actor must find them. Then he must figure out what to do with them.  Ian Keith may or may not have known the technical names of these and other figures of speech, but he certainly makes good use of the devices. Tyrone Power glosses over them.

Keith came from the stage, and had played a lot of Shakespeare by the time he made this picture, so he knew the importance of rhetorical devices, and how to emphasize and caress words to achieve the greatest effect. Tyrone Power came from a famous theatrical family, but he never got the hang of heightened speech. This sort of acting requires great technical skill above and beyond natural talent; it’s a form of magic, similar to sleight-of-hand and misdirection. As with a magic trick, the audience knows that their eyes are deceiving them, but they shouldn’t be able to tell how the trick is accomplished. Ian Keith is a master magician; Tyrone Power, alas, is not.


3 thoughts on “An Acting Lesson from ‘Nightmare Alley’

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