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Nightmare Alley (Movie Review)

REVIEW OVERVIEW

The Film

SUMMARY

A remake of a classic film noir, 'Nightmare Alley' tells the sad story of a con-man who leaves the carnival for a brief run of success as a mentalist only to be undone by a scheming psychologist with an axe to grind against men.

You might wonder, as I did, why Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro would go to the trouble and expense of remaking a 75-year-old film noir based on William Lindsay Gresham’s best-seller. To cover his bets, del Toro engaged a cast of A-listers beginning with Bradley Cooper as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a drifter who joins a traveling carnival after killing his alcoholic father. Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe), the carnival’s owner, takes a liking to Stan who has gotten rid of his latest geek (Paul Anderson), a drunk and opium addict.

Stan learns the art of “cold reading” and coded language from Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Straitharn). After Pete dies from ingesting wood alcohol supplied by Stan, the young man decides to leave the carnival with Molly “the electric girl” (Rooney Mara) and hit the road with a two-person mentalist routine.  The pair move to Buffalo, and, with Molly’s able assistance, Stan becomes a big hit with well-to-do patrons at a posh nightclub. During a show, he meets psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) whom he tricks into falling for his so-called psychic powers. Dr. Ritter introduces Stan to Judge Kimball (Peter MacNeill) who pays him handsomely to communicate with his dead son and help his wife (Mary Steenburgen) get over her unresolved grief, a session that later leads to fatal consequences.

Lilith becomes Stan’s accomplice as well as his lover and starts giving him free therapy sessions.  Judge Kimball introduces Stan to the ultra-wealthy Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) who is desperate to contact the spirit of his former girlfriend Dorrie who died following an attempted abortion that he forced her to undergo. Stan recruits a reluctant Molly to pass for the dead girl, but this final con job becomes his undoing.

Although Nightmare Alley picked up four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, writer-director del Toro abandons the economy of style that made The Shape of Water such a compelling watch. This new film plays long—it runs 150 minutes—and its deliberate pace only picks up near its ending which is more faithful than its predecessor to the one in Gresham’s novel. The recurring subjects of alcoholism, opium addiction and man’s inhumanity to man will surely be off-putting to some viewers and this film definitely merits its R-rating. This is a pity since the cast moves from strength to strength with Bradley Cooper morphing into the ultimate grifter and Rooney Mara’s telling portrayal of the naïve young woman whom he takes for a literal and figurative ride.  The real tour de force is turned in by Cate Blanchett as a scheming femme fatale with a streak of pure evil and a profound hatred of men.  Nice contributions in smaller roles come from Ron Perlman as the strong man Bruno, David Strathairn, Toni Collette, and the ever-reliable Willem Dafoe. The backdrop of the interiors of some of Buffalo’s famous art deco buildings are well captured by Dan Laustsen’s cameras and the atmospheric recreation of the late 1930s is skillfully accomplished with period sets, cars, and costumes. Not del Toro’s best work, Nightmare Alley is still a film worth watching for its strong production values. If you have not seen the original version starring Tyrone Power that has achieved legendary film noir status, I would highly recommend that you do so, as it makes a more succinct case for this dark tale of drugs and deceit.

Nightmare Alley is streaming now on HBO Max and will debut on all major digital platforms March 8 and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on March 22.


  • Rating Certificate: R (for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language)
  • Studios & Distributors: R (for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language)
  • Country: USA
  • Language: English
  • Run Time: 150 Mins.
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Director: Guillermo del Toro
  • Written By: Guillermo del Toro | Kim Morgan
  • Release Date: 17 December 2021
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Nightmare Alley (Movie Review)A remake of a classic film noir, 'Nightmare Alley' tells the sad story of a con-man who leaves the carnival for a brief run of success as a mentalist only to be undone by a scheming psychologist with an axe to grind against men.
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