Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) joins a seedy carnival as the assistant to Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell). She and her alcoholic husband had a great, convincing system at "telling fortunes" until some misfortune caused them to come to the seedy carnival and work. Zeena hasn't told anyone their ingenious code. Stanton wants to know it and tries to seduce her, but she stays faithful to her husband.
Stanton eventually gets his way and learns the code, but later gets greedy and after living the high life with his innocent wife Molly (Coleen Gray) for a while. It all comes crashing down on him through his association with a mysterious and manipulative psychologist called Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker).
In 2019 it was announced that Oscar winning director Guillermo del Toro would direct a new adaptation of the novel starring Bradley Cooper as Stan, Toni Collette as Zeena, Rooney Mara as Molly and Cate Blanchett as Lilith. The film is set for wide release December 17, 2021, and had its premiere December 1 of that same year.
Tropes used in the film:
- Accidental Murder: Stanton hands Pete a bottle of wood alcohol, having mistaken it for the bottle of moonshine he acquired earlier. Pete proceeds to drink himself to death.
- Arbitrary Skepticism: A discussed inverted example. Stanton points to Zeena that her believe that Tarot is genuine seems weird considering that she is in the bushiness of selling illusions and hokey tales for cash.
- Bittersweet Ending: Stanton's life ends up in shambles after he gets outplayed by Lilith, and he ends up becoming an alcoholic shell of his former self, to the point of becoming the geek of a new carnival (essentially the lowest tier performer out there). However, at the end, Molly finds him and gains some recognition from him, with the implication that they'll at least end up together and stick together out of love. Then again, given how this is destined to mirror Zeena and Pete's relationship from the beginning of the film, it could very well edge toward a Downer Ending.
- Crappy Carnival: The carnies work in a fairly standard creepy-looking place.
- Karma Houdini: Lilith blackmails Stanton into not going to the police and gets away with it all, keeping the 150,000 dollars they made from their scams.. This is a rare example of Karma Houdini during The Hays Code, which usually demanded that evildoers be punished.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Stanton spends the film swindling everyone. He is ultimately double-crossed by his accomplice, loses his money and lover, and is forced to become a carnival geek.
- Lighter and Softer: The novel and remake end with Stanton losing absolutely everything and being reduced to a carnival geek. This film at least gives him a reunion with Molly.
- Out-Gambitted: Stanton finds out that Lilith has tricked him by swapping his money for 1-dollar bills, but when he confronts her about it and tries blackmailing her with the fact that she was an accomplice to his con, she tells him that not only is her knowledge of his involvement in Pete's death much worse than anything he has on her, she will also testify that he is mentally disturbed if he should try anything, making it crystal clear to him that would it be a bad idea for him to go the police.
- Psycho Psychologist: Lilith Ritter is an amoral psychologist who uses confidential information on her clients to con them out of money, and does not hesitate to ruin her ally Stanton.
- "Ray of Hope" Ending: Stan has tumbled all the way from the top of his profession to being a shattered alcoholic wreck and carnival geek—but he's been reunited with Molly, who says she'll take care of him. This was added to the story at the insistence of producer Darryl F. Zanuck; the novel ends with Stan becoming a geek.
- Shotgun Wedding: In the novel, Stan and Molly live together without marrying, which film censorship rules wouldn't allow, so in the movie, after realizing that Stan and Molly have slept together, Bruno forces Stan to marry her by threatening to beat him up, with Zeena cheering on the threatened beating.
- Took a Level in Kindness: After the rug is pulled out from under him, Stanton comes off as humbled from his experiences. At the very least, he acts a lot more caring toward Molly.