Criterion Review: Getting Lost in NIGHTMARE ALLEY

For noir fans, the Criterion release of this sought-after title is a dream come true.

One of the most noteworthy film projects that was forced to be put on hold due to the pandemic was Guillermo Del Toro’s remake of the 1947 noir title Nightmare Alley. With an all-star cast that includes Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Willem Dafoe, the film stopped production midway through its shoot, but not before some set photos surfaced that showed the kind of highly stylized production Del Toro was planning. It’s certainly a far cry from the treatment given to the original film, which was criticized heavily for some of its more stark and (some might say, degrading) content. While the film was a flop, its status in the world of film noir continued to grow, gaining fans (including the aforementioned director) and a reputation as one of the most daring and provocative entries ever to exist within the genre.

In Nightmare Alley, Tyrone Power plays Stan Carlisle, one of a handful of carnies belonging to a traveling carnival. Stan’s handsome looks and strength make him an asset with the crowds while his charm wins over fortune teller Zeena (Joan Blondell) and resident “Jane” Molly (Coleen Gray). When Zeena’s longtime partner passes away, Stan takes his place and learns the tricks of the fortune telling game. Eventually the showman decides he’s good enough to take his racket out on his own, saying goodbye to Zeena and the carnival. With Molly by his side, Stan soon becomes a sought after act, eventually catching the eye of a beautiful psychiatrist named Lilith (Helen Walker), who instantly reads him at his own game.

Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham, the themes in Nightmare Alley are some of the most intoxicating in all of noir since many of them deal with elements which are largely alien and more or less out of any one character’s control. There is a practical crime element which pops up in the story, but it pales in comparison to everything else driving the film. Themes of chance, destiny and a higher power are all present within Nightmare Alley, guiding each character to a predetermined fate none of them can possibly escape. In fact, the film’s ending (though sanitized at the behest of the studio) perfectly illustrates the notion of being unable to outrun whatever fateful outcome was meant to befall you. It all works thanks to the curious world that Nightmare Alley is set in. The land of the carnies is boldly opened up and explored, leading to some of the film’s shocking moments. One such instance is a scene involving the carnival’s geek, who we learn is nothing more than a man so deep into alcoholism and who will do anything for a drink, that the carnival will supply him with alcohol, bill him as the missing link and force him to commit “astonishing” acts for crowds. At the same time, there’s a strange camaraderie within the world of the carnies that the film does a great job of capturing. These people are each other’s families, livelihoods and are responsible for one another’s futures as much as destiny itself.

There’s something to the backdrop of confidence games and the mindset of the hustler that makes the movie even more entrancing. Whether it be the locals in the carnival crowds or the posh people in the ritzy nightclubs where Stan and Molly perform their refined act, Nightmare Alley shows how chance and the need to believe in such a force has the ability to link together all classes and make them fair game. It’s interesting to see the role of the con reflected in each of the movie’s three central female characters. Although Zeena knows she’s putting on a show, she firmly believes in the practice of telling fortunes and has proudly made a living off of it. Meanwhile, Molly goes back and forth on whether or not she herself believes as she tries to remain uncorrupted by the act she and Stan perform for customers on a nightly basis, choosing instead to focus on her love for him. Finally, Lilith, the more pragmatic of the three, gives no power or serious consideration to fate and destiny and engages with it purely to see what she can get from it. It’s interesting the way each woman’s role in the film is dictated by her relationship with fate and clairvoyance. Zeena is the tired, jaded version of the dreamy, optimistic Molly, while Lilith, the most calculating of the three, is undoubtedly the femme fatale. Each woman in Nightmare Alley is her own woman, beguiling and bewitching the main character in ways which succeed in venturing beyond the conventions of the genre.

According to TCM’s Eddie Muller, Nightmare Alley flopped not just because of the nature of some of its content, but also because audiences couldn’t take Power as a less than heroic figure. Yet the strength of the film endures among noir aficionados. Speaking of Muller, instead of continuing with my closing remarks about Nightmare Alley, I’d like to take the time to talk about the Film Noir Foundation, the San Francisco-based organization that rescues and restores noir titles which are rarely seen. With Muller as its Founder and President, the non-profit organization funds these restoration efforts through a series of retrospective noir festivals titled Noir City, which show both genre staples and newly saved rarities for fans in cities across the country. I’ve covered Noir City every year since its first stop in Austin and having to skip it thanks to the COVID era has been devastating for this noir lover. It has no doubt been even more devastating for the folks at the foundation itself, who not only depend on these festivals for restoration funds, but who also delight in seeing the community come out to marvel at the fruits of their painstaking labor. For information about contributing to this invaluable organization and the preservation of noir titles still in need of rescuing, please visit

Nightmare Alley is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

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