Nightmare Alley (1947)

Nightmare Alleynightmare_alley_1947 poster
Edmund Goulding
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Repeat viewing


Stanton Carlisle: It takes one to catch one.

I radically revised my opinion of this deeply cynical carnival noir for the better after a several year hiatus.  I liked it so much this time I can’t imagine what I was thinking before.  I must have been in a bad mood.

Tyrone Power gives a career-topping great performance as womanizing carnival barker Stanton Carlisle, who seizes the main chance by romancing mentalist Zeena (Joan Blondell) to gain access to a code that enabled her and now alcoholic partner Pete (Ian Keith) to hit the big time as a mind-reading act.  Stanton is not above pushing Pete over the edge with a quart of moonshine to get him out of the picture.

In the meantime, Stan is two-timing Zeena with Molly, a beautiful hootchy-cootchy dancer. When he gets what he wants out of Zeena, he promptly ditches her for Molly and they strike it rich doing a mind-reading act in big city nightclubs.  But Zeena’s tarot cards have predicted a big fall for Stan and he may have met his match in the lady he seeks to exploit when he decides to turn spirtualist.

Nightmare Alley 1


This is a profoundly bleak movie, haunted as it is by the specter of the carnival geek, an “attraction” consisting of a man-beast who bites the heads off of chickens, played by a carnie who has sunk so low he will work for a bottle a day and a place to sleep it off.  (Funny how the word geek has morphed in the last 66 years!)  It was not too surprising to learn that both the director and the author of the source novel committed suicide.  This may have turned more people off alcohol than any movie but The Long Weekend.

Tyrone Power is a revelation in this.  I had never really “got” his appeal but he is both absolutely gorgeous in his many t-shirted scenes and shows off some real acting chops here.  Joan Blondell and Ian Keith are stand-outs as the over-the-hill vaudevillians.  The story and dialogue are deliciously hard-boiled.  Proceedings are slightly marred in the last 60 seconds by a ray of hope that appears from nowhere in Hollywood fashion.




4 thoughts on “Nightmare Alley (1947)

  1. The first time I saw NIGHTMARE ALLEY (many years ago), it was on the big screen and a sparkling nitrate print. I was blown out of my seat. I’m delighted to hear that it holds up and that is available. A must see!

  2. This is a very unpleasant film which doesn’t mean I don’t like it because I do. Power may be at the top of his acting skills since he seldom played such a bad guy. He was damn good at it and probably should have taken on more roles as a sleazy fellow. It is best to ignore the last 60 seconds of the film. You know how they say that a film leaves a bad taste in your mouth????……this is one of those films for me.

    • I know what you mean about it leaving a bad taste. I can’t think of another film of the period with a grimmer view of human nature. Even the “good” characters are weak, and usually have vices on top of that. Tyrone Power is perfect as a self-absorbed fraud.

      I think maybe I reacted badly the first time because I was already depressed. This time I could see it more objectively.

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