Movie Review: “Nightmare Alley”


Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Bradley Cooper stars in Guillermo Del Toro’s remake of the noir film “Nightmare Alley.”

Film noir movies may have dark and sinister themes, but they will always tempt people into watching them. Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” is a perfect example of this. The opening scene features a sinister ten-minute hook in which we follow the main character to a carnival full of thrilling sideshow acts and fortune tellers. 

Film noir (direct translation: “black film”) became popular during the late 1940s, after the devastating effects of World War II. During this postwar era, the usual uplifting Hollywood films became darker and more sinister. Housewives had entered the workforce and were earning their own wage for the household. When the husbands returned from the war, they noticed the shift in gender roles that had taken place while they were gone. As an article by explains, “In response to this insecurity, film noir gives us tales of men being taken advantage of by powerful and sometimes sinister women.” These women were also known as femme fatales (direct translation: “fatal woman”). The term itself, “film noir,” came from the French critics, when they realized the tonal change in Hollywood movies. During the late 1940s, the popular movies had become detective stories or thrillers, not musicals or comedies.

It was during this time that the classic movie “Nightmare Alley” came out. It was released in 1947, only a year after the novel by William Gresham was published. Unlike the dark novel, the studio decided to make the movie more uplifting by changing the ending. However, the movie at that time did not do well at all. Many people believe that the original movie bombed in the box office because the cult fans of the novel where angry at this “happy” ending. 

The new “Nightmare Alley” may be a remake, but Guillermo del Toro has brought his own original twist to the film. Del Toro decided to make it more gruesome and violent, without the questionable ending this time around. Del Toro followed the novel as closely as possible. He also made sure to add in the importance of tarot cards, which play a major role in the book. The author, William Gresham, may not have believed in the sideshows or the occult, but the only act he could not debunk were the tarot cards. Gresham believed that the tarot cards told the future and were not a force to be reckoned with.

Much like the book, the new movie’s main focus is about uncovering and debunking the carnival sideshow acts. This is because both the author and the director share an obsession with the sideshows. They reveal how once-magical carnival tricks are simply manipulative ways to get the crowds to give away their money.

Bradley Cooper does an amazing job at portraying the charming drifter, Stan Carlisle. Throughout the film, Stan learns all the tricks to exploit a crowd. A presumed clairvoyant named Zeena immediately catches Stan’s eye, and he is enthralled with her carnival act. She decides to teach him the ways to trick people into believing you can talk to their loved ones who have passed on. However, she warns him to never perform a “spook show.” Spook shows or seances were expensive one-on-one readings that are notoriously off limits because the risk of getting caught in a lie is greater and can be dangerous.  As Stan becomes better at these tricks, though, his ego grows larger, making him believe that he could handle the “spook shows.” This is where the famous tarot cards make their appearance to warn him to not continue down his greedy path. He is warned by Zeena to not test fate, or specifically the tarot cards. 

When Stan Carlisle first visits the carnival, he enters a tent where the crowd is surrounding a circular fence that looks down on a man in a cage. Everyone becomes excited when they hear the echo of a voice asking, “Is he a man or is he a beast?” That question sticks in your head through the whole film, making you wonder if there is going to be a fantasy element to the movie. Even though none appear, somehow the reality is scarier, showing that man is the true beast.

Greed is what drives many people into becoming that “beast.” It also is what drives Stan Carlisle to leave the carnival and to agree to work with the psychologist Lilith Ritter, played by the fantastic Cate Blanchett. It is Lilith who pushes him to cross the line. She helps him perform “spook shows” for her wealthiest clients. Lilith helps him manipulate people by giving him their personal information. Throughout the movie, Stan thinks he is the one using Lilith, when that is really not the case. She is able to lure him in because of his ego and greed. Lilith is a classic example of film noir’s most famous star, the femme fatale.

The only act in “Nightmare Alley” that Gresham and Del Toro were unable to debunk were the tarot cards. The tarot cards that were used as a warning. The tarot cards that Stan Carlisle chose to ignore.