Nightmare Alley – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

What a picture! That can apply to many of these great releases from the Criterion Collection, but 1947’s Nightmare Alley is quite the film noir. This Edmund Goulding classic features Tyrone Power, cast against type, as a traveling con man who experiences both a rise to the top and a descent to the bottom. It’s an expertly crafted feature, with several solid performances and enough going on to provide a terrific reminder of how effective a movie can be when relying merely on atmosphere and angst to craft genuine thrills. This new Criterion Blu-ray features a fantastic new restoration and a nice collection of extras to go with it.


Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, a small-time carny who has a way of charming people. An unfortunate series of events allow Stanton to rise through the ranks as a charlatan spiritualist. Putting on a show where Stanton pretends to read minds, his success leads him to become a Chicago nightclub sensation. However, this attention guides him further down a path of no return, as his ambition leads to moral degradation and self-destruction. But will Stanton be able to put himself back on track, or is he doomed to standby with the rest of the carnival geeks?

Without revealing too much, it’s interesting to know that producer Darryl F. Zanuck asked screenwriter Jules Furthman to alter the ending from what author William Lindsay Gresham had in mind with his original and quite controversial 1946 novel. I find this intriguing because the implication isn’t necessarily more or less bleak but deemed as a way to have audiences less uncomfortable with a film so daring. And yes, as a result, the film still did not find much success until years later, as audiences were not too thrilled with the dark nature of this story.

Keeping this in mind, no one responsible for this film has a reason not to be proud of the results, least of all Tyrone Power. Looking to change up his image from a swashbuckling matinee-idol (think The Mark of Zorro or The Black Rose), Power delivered a fantastic and ruthless performance as “The Great Stanton.” Power claimed it to be his favorite of his own performances, and one can see why. The film pushes him through so many different states. We see him go from having a fascination with the carnival world to building his fame through charm to settling himself upon his success to the further ambitions that would get him into trouble, and, finally, the downfall he experiences.

Only helping the film are the trio of actresses representing different aspects of what Stanton (“The Hanged Man”) has to go on. There’s the innocence found in Coleen Gray’s Molly (“The Star”). The talent comes from Joan Blondell’s Zeena (“The Magician”). And then there’s the scheming seen in Helen Walker’s Lilith (“The Emperor”). As this is noir, it should come as no surprise that one of these characters is the film’s femme fatale. Regardless, for a movie so bent on hitting a specific tone and playing into the dark cynicism, it’s the way Power’s chemistry with these other performers hits that keeps this film entertaining, and with a sense of hope that we see “The Great Stanton” succeed.

Naturally, this wouldn’t be a proper noir without, not only drama, but the fatalistic slide towards a black hole of oblivion. It’s not enough for Stanton to fail; it’s the emotional toll it takes on a man thinking he’s the hero of his own story, who comes to realize what his actions are costing him. There’s a clever cyclical nature to this plot, where we first see Stanton observing what the lowest have to do to survive, only to have to consider his own options by the story’s end. Even with a sense of ambiguity, I can see that being a lot for a contemporary audience to process when having just watched a big movie star turn his persona on its head.

Of course, the film is now regarded as a classic, and for good reason. In addition to being a well-performed and ingeniously constructed film, it plays well as another post-war look at how society can function for an American using specific means to achieve the dream. There’s also the power of suggestion as far as just how brutal this film can be, letting the various actors convey so much through the power of screen presence. For a 40s noir, it’s actually quite impressive that this film has very little violence or actual crime yet remains as thrilling as it is.

Nightmare Alley had a higher budget than the usual noir, let alone a good amount of star power on its side. As a result, while unable to garner much strength among critics or audiences at the time, its legacy has only grown. In the decades since, the film now serves as a shining example of the genre. It plays well into what one wants out of a story like this and doesn’t pull its punches. For all the mainstream films today that tend to pose as if they can understand dark and unsavory ideas, here’s one that truly delivers the nightmare.



Encoding: MPEG -4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Details: This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution at Cineric in New York, on the facility’s proprietary 4K HDR wet-gate film scanner, from a 35mm nitrate composite print from the Disney/Fox Collection at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Clarity/Detail: The film looks terrific. This is the sort of picture that easily benefits from the new scan, as it’s an older film that had a solid budget, to begin with, and has been properly stored over the years. Of course, something like the transfer for Detour feels like a minor miracle by comparison, but nothing is holding Nightmare Alley back from maintaining its clear image that has to play up big, crowded scenes in the nightclub, along with more intimate, shadowy scenes. The detail comes alive in both.

Depth: The staging of this film makes for a good understanding of character placement. A climactic sequence featuring a character in the distance of a lavish backyard is a great way to get a sense of the dimensionality.

Black Levels: Black levels are quite stable, rich, and feature no sign of crushing. The contrast that comes with the use of shadows and nighttime scenes shows off just how strong the imagery is when considering the darker elements and the b&w cinematography. Cinematographer Lee Garmes deserves plenty of credit, but this Blu-ray is terrific in making sure his work stands up now.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the characters is impressive enough.

Noise/Artifacts: The film is spotless.



Audio Format(s): English LPCM Mono

Subtitles: English

Details: The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from a 35mm nitrate composite print with a variable-density track from the Disney/Fox Collection at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Dynamics: This Blu-ray’s mono track has been fully restored and does a solid job finding all the ways to deliver on the various elements brought to the film through its score, dialogue, and other elements. It’s a great mix that is clear and stable throughout.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.



Nightmare Alley arrives with a solid collection of extras delivering about what I’d expect from a film such as this. There are some great interviews here, providing a good amount of information and context to expand upon the film.

Features Include:

  • Audio Commentary with film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver – An archival commentary recorded in 2005.
  • Imogen Sara Smith (HD, 31:52) – A video interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith, author of Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City. She discusses the film’s ideas, themes, stars, and more. Recorded in 2021.
  • Todd Robbins (HD, 19:18) – A video interview with sideshow historian and performer Todd Robbins, who discusses the nature of carnival shows, specifically the “freak shows,” and how Nightmare Alley incorporated carnival troupes. Recorded in 2021.
  • Coleen Gray (HD, 12:41) – The actress recalls her involvement with the film in this archival interview from 2001. She discusses Power’s role in Hollywood at the time, among other neat bits of info.
  • Henry King (HD, 9:36) – An audio interview from 1971 featuring director Henry King. He discusses his work with Tyrone Power, who appeared in 11 of his films, as a part of the Darryl F. Zanuck Research Project for the AFI’s Oral History Collection.
  • Trailer (HD, 1:33)
  • PLUS – An essay by film writer and screenwriter Kim Morgan, along with six tarot cards.



Guillermo del Toro’s next film is another adaptation of the Nightmare Alley novel, starring Bradley Cooper, among others. I’m excited to see what that will be like, but audiences can already be treated with this excellent film noir. Tyrone Power leads a very strong film, and the new Criterion presentation does not disappoint. An outstanding new audio and video transfer is supported by a nice set of special features. Any noir fan would be doing themselves a favor by picking up this film.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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