Darkness lurks behind the bright lights of a traveling carnival in one of the most haunting and perverse film noirs of the 1940s. Adapted from the scandalous best seller by William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley gave Tyrone Power a chance to subvert his matinee-idol image with a ruthless performance as Stan Carlisle, a small-time carny whose unctuous charm propels him to fame as a charlatan spiritualist, but whose unchecked ambition leads him down a path of moral degradation and self-destruction. Although its strange, sordid atmosphere shocked contemporary audiences, this long difficult-to-see reflection of postwar angst has now taken its place as one of the defining noirs of its era—a fate-fueled downward slide into existential oblivion.
The Criterion Collection presents Edmund Goulding’s previously hard-to-come-by Nightmare Alley on Blu-ray, delivering the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration, scanned from a 35mm nitrate composite print.
Similar to other recent 4K restorations for black-and-white films from Fox, this restoration and final presentation has its ups and downs, but when all was said and done I was generally pleased with the end results. Film grain is a bit odd and I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with it. It’s present, as the screen grabs will mostly show, but in motion it can have a somewhat filtered look which then leads to a bit of a waxy effect on objects here and there, especially faces. Definition around the edges can also come off a bit blurry, but this particular effect could either be a side-effect of the photography or the later-gen source elements, not necessarily an issue with the digital restoration (or encode). Contrast and grayscale are okay, but there is a bit of “chrome” look to the image, with the whites looking a little blown out in spots, and this could also be what’s playing into some of the waxy look at times. Blacks aren’t too bad, and you can make out darker grays and shadow detail to a decent degree a good chunk of the time, yet there are still a handful of darker sequences that have limited range, and the blacks come off a little flat.
As to source damage and the like there isn’t anything of note to report. Some scenes using rear-projection or something similar show some marks but that can’t be helped. There are also a handful of dupey looking shots scattered about that look fuzzier than what the rest of the film offers. Outside of those things I didn’t note much else, with clean-up being quite thorough.
It could certainly be better, maybe with just the contrast adjusted a bit, but it still looks pretty good.
(Screen grabs are presented full-resolution, but have been converted from PNG file to JPG.)
Criterion delivers the film’s monaural audio with a lossless single-channel PCM soundtrack, sounding to be sourced from that same composite print. Some minor filtering may have gone on, but the track does have some decent depth and range to it, sounding sharp without coming off all that edgy (maybe a little during high points). Dialogue is clear, music sounds solid, and no instances of damage stick out.
Nightmare Alley was in legal hell for decades until Fox was finally able to release the film on DVD in 2005, Eureka releasing their own edition the same year in the UK (with its own exclusive features not found on this edition) through their Masters of Cinema line. Fox ended up only giving the film a modest release with an audio commentary and a trailer, both of which Criterion has carried over to their edition.
The commentary—featuring film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver—is a fine if unspectacular one. The two, rather laid back, talk about the film’s production and the original novel on which its based, along with the reasons as to why Tyrone Power pushed for this film to be made, much to the disdain of then-studio head Daryl F. Zanuck, who really hated the project (though ultimately gave it a big budget). Though the film is not a typical noir (and even has a supernatural element to it), they explain and point out the noir aspects, from the cynical nature and worldview of it story and characters, to femme fatales (even if the latter isn’t typical femme fatale in this case) and double-crosses, all the while pointing out how the film manages to subvert some common noir tropes.
It’s an easy-going conversation and the two keep it the pace up well enough, with some amusing little moments thrown in (there’s a whole portion where the two talk about whether electronic music is being used in one portion or not), but it’s not the most exciting track, and most of the material manages to be covered throughout the other features anyway, starting with a great 32-minute interview with critic Imogen Sara Smith, who seems to have become Criterion’s go-to for noir and noir-adjacent films as of late. She does end up covering the same details in the commentary to an extent—while adding some new information and her own interpretations of the film—but does so in a more linear manner, going over the original novel and its author in a bit more detail, and then talking about the project and what elements were changed during the adaptation before talking about the films in terms of a noir film. And then to cover the carnival/carny aspect of the film, Criterion pulls in showman Todd Robbins to talk about the history of the side show and how its adapted and changed through the years up to today. He also explains how Nightmare Alley perfectly captures the environment at that point in time, right down to the details around the “geek” show, and takes the time to clear up what he feels are unfair, negative perceptions, even if there is an element of truth to them. It’s a great 19-minute addition and a great pairing with Smith’s contribution. A commentary featuring both probably would have been a fun addition.
An excerpt from a 2007 interview with Coleen Gray features the actor first recounting how she dreamed of becoming a “movie star” as a child (only to be laughed at), and how she luckily fell in to getting the key role in Nightmare Alley, which only happened because of her role in Kiss of Death. She also got see how Zanuck hated the project and knows he’s the one that ultimately let it die. Criterion also includes a 9-minute excerpt from a 1971 audio interview with filmmaker Henry King (from the same one Criterion sampled in their release for King's The Gunfighter), who talks about working with actor Tyrone Power on a number of films, though it should be pointed out King had nothing to do with Nightmare Alley.
The provided insert then features an essay on the film by Kim Morgan, who also offers a little more around author William Lindsay Graham. In a nice touch, Criterion also includes six tarot cards, five of which represent key characters in the film (a couple might be somewhat spoilery).
I would have half expected director Guillermo del Toro to show up; he’s currently working on a remake of the film and he has enthusiastically appeared in other supplements for Criterion around films that are not his own, so it was a fair assumption I think. I also probably would have expected some material around director Edmund Goulding. Still, it’s a solid set of supplements, the two new interviews probably being the strongest additions.
It’s probably the best release yet for the film and it’s an easy recommendation. There is room for improvement in the presentation, but it’s more than fine and the included supplements are fun and engaging.