Nightmare Alley (1947) – Movie Review

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Hey everybody, welcome to Mainely Movies.
Today I’m gonna be talking about the 1947
film noir: Nightmare Alley.
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All of my reviews include a breakdown of the
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Nightmare Alley stars Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell,
and Coleen Gray and was directed by Edmund
Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946
novel of the same name, it tells the story
of ambitious and deceitful carnival barker,
Stan Carlisle, played by Tyrone Power, as
he schemes to make it big in show business.
With Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation coming
in a few weeks and Criterion’s blu-ray release
arriving only a few months ago, now seemed
like the perfect time to review this classic
carnival noir.
This is one of those films whose inception
and production is almost more fascinating
than the movie itself.
Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s controversial
novel of the same name, this was an unconventional
choice of a film during

the Hay’s Code era.
With sleazy characters and a raw, pulpy depiction
of the carnival and showbiz underbelly, it’s
the kind of story that normally would’ve
been relegated to B-movie status – if it had
been adapted at all.
But Tyrone Power himself led the campaign,
convincing the studio chief to not only buy
the rights, but to make it an A-picture and
let him star it, against type.
Nightmare Alley is an unusual film for a number
of reasons, but perhaps one of the most obvious
is its genre.
With a name like Nightmare Alley, It might
come as no surprise that it’s a film noir.
No surprise, that is, until you watch it.
Because if you were given a hundred guesses
as to the correct name for the story, you’d
certainly never choose Nightmare Alley.
Baffling name choice aside, this is a film
noir… but it almost isn’t as the same
It’s got many of the genre hallmarks you’d
expect – the mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography,
the stark lighting contrast, the sweaty seedy
atmosphere full of deceitful characters.
But this is no detective story.
There’s no hard-boiled PI being seduced
by a femme fatale.
This is about a carnival and the greed and
ambition of an homme fatale.
And so, this is a film that’s weirdly split.
Much of the story is centered around the carnival.
This is a world of sideshows and moonshine.
A grimy world where the troupe can only afford
to occasionally rent a single hotel room as
they travel, just so everybody can take a
This is heavily contrasted by the leading-act
luxury of the city portion of the story.
This is a world of success and mingling with
the upper crust of society.
These two worlds of the story feels so different.
They almost feel like they’re in different
time periods, so when we see the characters
so easily – or painfully – slide from one
world to the other, something feels off-kilter.
Regardless of which world the story is set
in: the carny sideshow or posh headliner,
this is a story of deception.
No matter what, there’s always some sort
of angle.
Everybody and everything has a façade to
prevent others from seeing what’s just out
of reach.
Right from the start, we see just how seamlessly
Stan slips behind this façade.
One minute, he’s moving through the carnival
crowd, just another t-shirted spectator trying
to get a glimpse at the Geek.
The next minute, he’s slipping on a fake
shirt and tie overlay and a jacket and now
we suddenly see him transform into a slick
carnival barker.
Everything has a false, deceptive level to
it and we quickly realize that nothing is
as it appears.
We see the behind-the-scenes deception of
the magic show, we see the twisting lies that
the characters wrap themselves up in.
We watch as characters fake it so much that
they begin to lose sight of their own reality
and begin to believe in their own façade.
And trick those close to them into believing
in it too.
Everybody manipulates and, in return, find
them self being manipulated – including the
With all the grifting, deception, and double
crossing that occurs here, Nightmare Alley
is an interesting story.
But it’s also a slow and unevenly paced
This film certainly has a lot going for it,
but the moment-to-moment plot can drag at
times, and occasionally gets a tad dull when
a plot thread is lingered on for a hair too
But this is a film best assessed as a whole,
after taking in the entire film.
The individual pieces of the story may not
have been as compelling to me as I had hoped,
but the overarching story is strangely and
morbidly satisfying.
Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons.
Pro number one has gotta be the overall thematic
arc of the story.
Now, I can’t get into specifics here cause
I don’t wanna spoil anything, but when comparing
the beginning and ending of this film, there’s
a thrilling yet haunting thematic and plot
This is a dark, dour story that’s almost
aggressive in its pessimistic view of the
world and of people, but it’s one of those
films that’ll have you sitting there at
the end thinking “Oh wow… it really bridged
that gap.”
The second pro is the cinematography.
I’ll admit I have a bit of a soft spot for
just about any black and white cinematography
that’s even a reasonably competent.
There’s just something about that sharp
visual contrast.
But the cinematography here is more than just
reasonably competent.
It immerses you in the story, pulling you
into both the carnival world and the city
world in equal measure.
In typical film noir fashion, the lighting
is used to set the atmosphere and there’s
one sequence in particular as Stan walks around
the empty carnival grounds late one foggy
night, that perfectly captures the cinematographic
importance here.
On the con side, the biggest issue is how
slow the story is at points.
It’s a film noir, so it comes as no surprise
that there are a lot of dialogue-heavy scenes
that provide emotion rather than plot movement.
But there’s something extra slow about this
film at times.
It has a lot of plot threads and character
interactions that feel as though they’re
never fully explored before they’re dropped,
which makes some of the sequences that did
make the cut feel excessively draggy.
Before I give you my rating and recommendations,
I want to remind you that if you’re interested
in buying Nightmare Alley or any of the films
I mentioned today, I do have affiliate links
for all of them in the description below.
I get a small commission from anything you
buy using one of my links, so I’d really appreciate
if you’d use them if you’re in the market
for any of these movies.
I’m gonna give Nightmare Alley 3.5 out of
5 paws.
It’s a pulpy, manipulative film noir that’s
incredibly immersive.
The story is a slog at points as you’re
watching but has a very interesting and bizarrely
satisfying pay-off that makes it all worthwhile.
I would recommend Nightmare Alley to fans
of film noir, especially those that aren’t
the typical hard-boiled detective story.
If you like dark, cautionary tales, this is
one for you, And I’d also obviously recommend
it to people who are looking forward to Guillermo
del Toro’s adaptation of the novel.
If you liked Nightmare Alley, I would recommend
It focuses on a group of carnival sideshow
acts and tells another story of deception
and manipulation.
It’s also a pre-code horror drama, so things
get a little wild – at least for the time.
If you want another carnival/circus-centric
story with a bit of deception but would prefer
to cut out the grittier aspects, you should
check out Water for Elephants, which replaces
the noir with slightly lighter romantic drama.
And if you want another 1940s thriller about
manipulation, you might want to watch Gaslight.
It’s got some elements that occasionally
border on film noir and is another story about
deception and lies.
Alright, a couple questions for you guys.
Number one: Have you seen Nightmare Alley?
If so, what’d you think of it?
And number two: What’s your favorite movie
centered around a carnival or circus?
Be sure to leave your answers in the comments
below so we can get a discussion going.
Alright, so if you got some enjoyment, insight,
or information out of this review, I’d appreciate
it if you’d hit that like button.
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Till next time, this has been Alyssa with
Mainely Movies: The way life should be.

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