Nightmare Alley (1947 film)

Nightmare Alley is a 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, and directed by Edmund Goulding.[2] The film is based on the 1946 novel of the same title, written by William Lindsay Gresham.

Nightmare Alley
Theatrical release poster
Directed byEdmund Goulding
Produced byGeorge Jessel
Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay byJules Furthman
Based onNightmare Alley
1946 novel
by William Lindsay Gresham
Music byCyril J. Mockridge
CinematographyLee Garmes
Edited byBarbara McLean
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • October 9, 1947 (1947-10-09) (New York)[1]
Running time
111 minutes
CountryUnited States

Power, wishing to expand beyond the romantic and swashbuckler roles that brought him to fame, bought the rights to the novel so he could star as the unsavory lead, "The Great Stanton", a scheming carnival barker. The film premiered in the United States on October 9, 1947, then went into wide release on October 28, 1947, later having six more European releases between November 1947 to May 1954.

To make the film more believable, the producers built a full working carnival on ten acres (40,000 m2) of the 20th Century Fox back lot. They also hired over 100 sideshow attractions and carnival people to add further authenticity.

As noted on the DVD commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini, Nightmare Alley was somewhat unusual among film noir in having top stars, production staff and a relatively large budget. Despite a strong promotion campaign, the film was not a financial success upon its original release, due in part to protests against some of the scandalous content. The film has since found acclaim and is regarded as a classic.


The movie follows the rise and fall of a con man—a story that begins and ends at a seedy traveling carnival. The carnival's barker, Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power), is fascinated by everything there, including a grotesque geek, who prompts an observation from Stanton that he "can't understand how anybody could get so low." Stanton works with "Mademoiselle Zeena" (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith). Once a top-billed vaudeville act, Zeena and Pete used an ingenious code to make it appear that she had extraordinary mental powers, until her attentions to other men drove Pete to drink and reduced them to working in carnivals. Stanton learns that many people want to buy the code from Zeena for a lot of money but she refuses to sell; she is saving it as a nest egg.

Stanton tries to romance Zeena into teaching it to him but she remains faithful to Pete, feeling guilty over the role she played in his downfall and effectively nursemaiding him in the hope of some day sending him to a detox clinic for alcoholics. But one night in Texas, Stanton accidentally gives Pete the wrong bottle: the old man dies from drinking wood alcohol instead of moonshine. To keep her act going, Zeena is forced to teach Stanton the mind-reading code so that he can serve as her assistant.

Stanton prefers the company of the younger Molly (Coleen Gray). When their romance is found out, the remainder of the carnies including strongman Bruno (Mike Mazurki) force the pair into a shotgun marriage. No longer welcome in the carnival, Stanton realizes this is actually a golden opportunity for him. He and his wife leave the carnival. He becomes "The Great Stanton", performing to enraptured audiences in expensive nightclubs in Chicago. As well as things seem to be going, however, Stanton remains emotionally troubled by Pete's death and by his own part in it. He eventually seeks counseling from psychologist Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), to whom he confesses all that has occurred.

Since Lilith makes a point of recording all of her sessions with her patients, she has a compilation of sensitive information about the lives of various members of Chicago's social elite. Recognizing themselves as kindred spirits to a degree, Lilith and Stanton conspire together to manipulate her patients, with Lilith secretly providing private information about them and Stanton using that information to convince them that he can communicate with the dead. The plan almost works, until Stanton tries to swindle skeptical Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes) by having Molly pose as the ghost of Grindle's long-lost love. When the heartbroken Grindle breaks down, Molly refuses to play out the charade and reveals her true self to Grindle, thereby exposing Stanton as a fake. As he prepares to flee, Stanton discovers he has been scammed by Ritter, who gives him only $150 of Grindle's money rather than the promised $150,000 they had conned him out of to that point. With her recordings of Stanton's confessions to her available for use against him, Lilith threatens to testify that he is mentally disturbed should he accuse her of complicity in his crimes. Defeated, Stanton gives the $150 to Molly and urges her return to the carnival world where people care for her. Meanwhile, he gradually sinks into alcoholism.

With nowhere else to go, the fallen Stanton tries to get a job at another carnival, only to suffer the ultimate degradation: the only job he can get is playing the geek, eating live chickens in a sideshow and replying to the offer with his recurring catchphrase, "Mister, I was made for it." Unable to stand his life any further, he goes berserk. Fortunately, Molly happens to work in the same carnival. Stan regains hope when he sees her again and Molly vows to nurse him back to health, but their reunion is bittersweet, recalling Zeena's nursing the ever-drunk Pete. This conclusion, while somewhat dark and ambiguous, differed from the novel, which implied that Stanton is doomed to work as a geek until he drinks himself to death.



Upon the film's original release, reviews were mixed.

The New York Times review commented,

If one can take any moral value out of Nightmare Alley it would seem to be that a terrible retribution is the inevitable consequence for he who would mockingly attempt to play God. Otherwise, the experience would not be very rewarding for, despite some fine and intense acting by Mr. Power and others, this film traverses distasteful dramatic ground and only rarely does it achieve any substance as entertainment.[3]

The Variety review complimented the film's acting, noting that:

Nightmare Alley is a harsh, brutal story [based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham] told with the sharp clarity of an etching ... Most vivid of these is Joan Blondell as the girl he works for the secrets of the mind-reading act. Coleen Gray is sympathetic and convincing as his steadfast wife and partner in his act and Helen Walker comes through successfully as the calculating femme who topples Power from the heights of fortune back to degradation as the geek in the carney. Ian Keith is outstanding as Blondell's drunken husband.[4]

In Time magazine (November 24, 1947), film critic James Agee wrote:

"Nightmare Alley" would be unbearably brutal for general audiences if it were played for all the humour, cynicism and malign social observation that are implicit in it. It would be unbearably mawkish if it were played too solemnly. Scripter Jules Furthman and Director Edmund Goulding have steered a middle course, now and then crudely but on the whole with tact, skill and power. They have seldom forgotten that the original novel they were adapting is essentially intelligent trash, and they have never forgotten that on the screen pretty exciting things can be made of trash. From top to bottom of the cast, the playing is good. Joan Blondell, as the fading carnival queen, is excellent and Tyrone Power – who asked to be cast in the picture – steps into a new class as an actor (Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies, Modern Library, New York, 2000, page 369).

In a 2000 review of the film in The Village Voice, writer J. Hoberman commented, "This 1947 account of an archetypal American's rise and fall is neither a great movie nor even a classic noir but it has a great ambition to be daring and, once seen, is not easily forgotten. The movie suggested far more than it showed but what it showed, including the climactic degradation of 20th Century Fox's then-major star Tyrone Power, was remarkably sordid for so high-profile a release."[5]

The film is now regarded as "one of the gems of film noir"[6] and as one of Power's finest performances. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively collected 11 reviews and gave the film a 100% approval rating, with an average rating of 7.8/10.[7]


On December 12, 2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures announced that Guillermo del Toro will direct a remake and co-write with Kim Morgan.[8] In April of 2019, Leonardo DiCaprio was negotiating to star in del Toro's remake.[9] In August of 2019, it was reported that Cate Blanchett was negotiating to co-star with Bradley Cooper in the film, which is scheduled to starting shooting in early 2020.[10] On September 4, 2019, Rooney Mara was cast in the film.


  1. "Nightmare Alley – Original Print Information". Turner Classic Movies Database.
  2. Crump, Andy (August 9, 2015). "The 100 Best Film Noirs of All Time". Paste. Retrieved August 9, 2015.
  3. Pryor, Thomas M. (October 10, 1947). "Nightmare Alley", The New York Times, film review. Retrieved March 11, 2008.
  4. Fisk (October 15, 1947). "Nightmare Alley", Variety, film review. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
  5. Hoberman, J. (January 25, 2000). "Side Shows", The Village Voice, film review. Retrieved March 11, 2008.
  6. Zacharek, Stephanie. "Nightmare Alley (1947)". Turner Classic Movies Database. Retrieved December 2, 2015.
  7. Nightmare Alley at Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 2, 2018.
  8. Kroll, Justin (December 12, 2017). "Guillermo del Toro Taps Scott Cooper for 'Antlers' and Sets New Project 'Nightmare Alley' (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved December 12, 2017.
  9. Kroll, Justin (April 23, 2019). "Leonardo DiCaprio in Talks to Star in Guillermo del Toro's 'Nightmare Alley' (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved April 23, 2019.
  10. Kroll, Justin (August 2, 2019). "Cate Blanchett Eyes Guillermo del Toro's 'Nightmare Alley' With Bradley Cooper (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved August 2, 2019.
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