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Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream

By Mark Osteen

ISBN #9781421413884

Author Website:


Brought to you by guest reviewer JoAnne



Desperate young lovers on the lam ( They Live by Night), a cynical con man making a fortune as a mentalist ( Nightmare Alley), a penniless pregnant girl mistaken for a wealthy heiress ( No Man of Her Own), a wounded veteran who has forgotten his own name ( Somewhere in the Night)-this gallery of film noir characters challenges the stereotypes of the wise-cracking detective and the alluring femme fatale. Despite their differences, they all have something in common: a belief in self-reinvention. Nightmare Alley is a thorough examination of how film noir disputes this notion at the heart of the American Dream.

Central to many of these films, Mark Osteen argues, is the story of an individual trying, by dint of hard work or, more often, illicit enterprises, to overcome his or her origins and achieve material success. In the wake of World War II, the noir genre tested the dream of upward mobility and the ideas of individualism, liberty, equality, and free enterprise that accompany it.

Employing an impressive array of theoretical perspectives (including psychoanalysis, art history, feminism, and music theory) and combining close reading with original primary source research,Nightmare Alley proves both the diversity of classic noir and its potency. This provocative and wide-ranging study revises and refreshes our understanding of noir’s characters, themes, and cultural significance.


Initially I was drawn to this book because I love classic movies. I really love classic movies, and especially film noir. Not only have I seen 98% of the movies listed in this book, it has given me a completely different take on them. Where I enjoyed them before, I never looked at what Dr. Osteen describes as “hidden meanings” in the films. To be honest, I will probably not parse them any more than I ever have, and just enjoy them for what they are – great films from an era never to be seen again.

Whether or not the directors of these films ever wanted anyone to see a ‘hidden agenda’ remains an enigma in itself. Whether or not they knew – or cared – that anyone would see anything other than what the film is – a vehicle of entertainment, of escape, as it were – we may never know. But Dr. Osteen has definitely brought up interesting points, and logical ones, in that these films have deeper meanings. After all, isn’t it called ‘noir’ for a reason?

I would suggest, though, that if you have not seen the films listed that you watch them first, because he gives you pretty much the entire film in all key points, including the ending. And just like books, many people do not like spoilers. Also, this book is not a ‘bedside companion,’ which you need to help enjoyment of the films; rather it is a dissection of them, and you may not look upon them the same again.

Hopefully, though, for those of you who enjoy classic movies and the genre of noir itself, you will appreciate this book for what it is and read it.