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Nightmare Alley

, 336 pages

21 halftones

January 2013



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Nightmare Alley

Film Noir and the American Dream

Outstanding Academic Title, Choice Magazine

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.

Mark Osteen is a professor of English, chair of the English Department, and founder of the Film Studies Program at Loyola University Maryland. He is the author of several books, most recently the memoir One of Us: A Family’s Life with Autism.

"Describes film noir as a genre that challenges the American mythology of upward mobility and self-reinvention."

"Only a few of the many books on film noir are essential. This is one of them... A smart, clearly written book."

"Osteen has given us a fresh, discerning, and nuanced perspective on a popular style of Hollywood films during the period 1940-1960 and has proved a reliable guide down the sinuous twistings of 'Nightmare Alley.'"

"Mark Osteen manages to add something new and substantial to the discourse on film noir—an examination of the ways in which the American Dream is subverted, challenged, and ultimately discounted by the harsh realities of a noir universe, which more directly aligns itself with society than the phantom hope of endless upward mobility."

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