Nightmare Alley


‘…revitalises the genre with a fresh take, exhuming material that’s aged rather well and fully deserves another outing to entertain a mystery-starved audience…’

Here’s one kind of remake we can all approve of. It’s not like many remember the 1947 Tyrone Power film noir, so there’s no point in being offended by a reworking. Under the censors rules of the 40’s, it was unlikely that an adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel would be able to cover all the nuances of such a decidedly seedy, nihilistic story, so 2021’s cinema should, in theory, be able to do it better. And lastly, the original Edmund Goulding film seems to have been way ahead of its time, and underappreciated by all but a select few. With Guillermo del Toro at the helm, the new version of Nightmare Alley carries more of a shocking charge than it ever did before.

Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is first seen burning a body; we don’t know whose. He burns a house to the ground and sets off to make some fast money, dollar by dollar, by helping out at a sinister circus/carnival. Wowed by a mind-reading act realised by Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her father (David Strathairn), Carlisle is smart enough to want a slice of the action, but his motivation increases when he meets Molly (Rooney Mara) who makes her living having electrical current put through her body as part of a dangerous act. Carlisle and Molly go on the run together after something happens to Madame Zeena’s father, but the big city only leads them to the clutches of sinister psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett)….

Nightmare Alley is a genuine shocker, mainly because of the immoral, transgressive tone; just about everyone is working a noir angle here, and those seeking lovable characters and high-moral standards should look elsewhere. In the central role, Cooper captures a mean, dark spirit in Stan Carlisle, whose early encounter with circus-attraction-owner (Willem Dafoe) hangs over his story like a foreboding curse. Blanchett gets her vamp on perfectly, but all the performers are on point here, and del Toro knows just how to elevate this melodramatic tale into something more than a potboiler.

With a lavish, Gothic production, plus the usual del Toro grasp of nightmarish reality, there’s plenty here for mature audiences to feast on. Remaking 1940’s film noirs couldn’t be less fashionable in 2022, but Nightmare Alley revitalises the genre with a fresh take, exhuming material that’s aged rather well and fully deserves another outing to entertain a mystery-starved audience. And Cooper is the big draw here, giving a memorably powerful, compelling performance that provides an ideal centre for an off-kilter, nightmare universe of ambition, deception and greed.


Thanks to Searchlight/ 20th Century Studios for access to this film.


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  1. Way too long for a start. I never read reviews before seeing a film. I don’t want to know anything about it. With Del Toro’s name attached and the very title I was expected something in the horror vein and have to admit it was quite a while before I realised this was not a horror film though I guessed the minute we saw the geek that somehow Bradley Cooper was going to end up as the geek. Fascinating though the intricacies of deceit were I didn’t think it was anything like enough to sustain such a long picture. It’s an odd choice to take this kind of circus as a metaphor for deception since everyone knows they are nothing but a hall of mirrors. It doesn’t get any extra points from me for being a remake of an old film noir especially when it ignores the first rule of film noir – get to the point. Here dupe and puppet master are hardly in place well before the halfway mark. Cooper was superb – when is he going to throw his hat in the ring for Indiana Jones? – and great to see so many good actors like Dafoe in decent roles. But three stars at the most, I’m afraid.

    • Let’s agreed that Cooper is splendid here, and a must have for the Indiana Jones franchise if it continues. Like you, I half expected this to turn into a Del Toro monster movie, so it got plus points for not being that, and for sparing us the final geek shot. It feels to me that modern style will feel a little bloated beside the terseness we expect from 40’s noir, but I felt that detail justified that. I’d like to see many more noir properties developed, although I get that the length may feel self-defeating here…

      • Think if I had been expecting film noir i might have been a bit more tolerant. Still the genre is called film noir not epic so that its length seemed more than a tad indulgent.

  2. That’s a great review you made. This “Nightmare Alley” is sort of image jewelery, inspired by the ethylic spirit of Gresham, haunted by Del Toro youth terrors. It’s probably the first time he plunges so deep in the darkness.

    • Beautifully put. I was concerned the director would go OTT, but he stuck to the noir rules, and probably his darkest movie to date.

  3. I think I saw the original years ago but not absolutely certain – I have a recollection of enjoying it, but not strong enough to colour my thoughts on the remake so I’ll essentially be going in fresh. After reading your review I’m now very keen to see this.

    • There’s so little noir action today, and it’s also nice to see this director playing within genre rules. It might leave some people cold with hard, amoral characters, but I sure dug it.

  4. Hyped to see this one. Hoping to get a “remake rumble” post on my own blog out of it!

    This one is ripe for a remake….as you said, so many restrictions in the 1940’s that no longer apply, and this one certainly doesn’t have much of a following waiting to come an decry how the original was defaced.

    • I’m keen to see the original version now, but I can see how it would have to be different. There seems to be a cult following, but I like to think i know about these things, and it completely passed me by. Like to think there’s similar gems out there…

  5. Gresham was a pip, a true crime rag editor/writer, commie, early Scientologist, Spanish War medic, alcoholic, and man that gave us the word geek. While I’ve seen T Power movie, I’m waiting to see Cooper, Blanchett, Perlman… For more info on carny, try article by Keith Roysdon or Penn Gilette’s 2016 American Carny (where u find freaks were best paid & some self made). Gresham was married to Joy Davidman, a prodigy who it’s been recently discovered pursued C.S. Lewis while still married to Gresham (see movie Shadowlands). I highly recommend his book of selected writings Grindshow (if you can find it). Her poetry was dry and dense.
    Your critique makes it sound even better than I anticipated, ‘lavish gothic noir; everyone working an angle; entertain a mystery starved audience…’ I may have to go the the theatre today, rather than wait for DVD or online viewing! I love a good nightmare (as long as I get to wake up.)
    What is it about America and late 19th-20thc carnivals–a need to be shocked, entertained, scared?

    • Canvivals are where it’s at; we’ve talked Bradbury before, for one. To my name, I wasn’t aware of the original, but it’s clearly a hidden gem, with various parties interested in a revival. I knew the name Gresham, but it’s one that’s embossed on traffic cones here, so I jumped to that connection rather than Shadowlands, but now that you mention it, I do recall the connection. No more from me until you’ve seen this, although I can now see where the word geek came from…

  6. Are the cinemas still open?
    We went to a restaurant yesterday and there was nobody. Just wondering how cinema’s are still existing, as it seems they were even harder than restaurants. And with covid making another surge, at least here in the US, I wonder how the bills will be paid for those big huge buildings….

    • I think he’s on form here, and Mara is always a strong performer. This is cold, hard noir, not quite the director’s usual beat, I think you’d like it…

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