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Today’s Prayer Focus

Nightmare Alley

also known as “Aleja noćnih mora,” “El Callejón De Las Almas Perdidas,” “Košmarų alėja,” “La fiera delle illusioni - Nightmare Alley,” See more »
MPA Rating: R-Rating (MPA) for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language.

Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill

Very Offensive
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Neo-Noir Crime Psychological-Thriller Adaptation
2 hr. 30 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
December 17, 2021 (wide release—2,145 theaters)
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Relevant Issues
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1940s carnivals / carnival barkers / freakshows

Carnival “geeks” and freak shows

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Liars and deceivers

Grifters / Con men


Murderer—Son kills his own father


Fugitive from justice

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Fake psychics / seers

Fortune tellers, crystal balls and tarot cards

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Vulnerable and naïve victims of deceivers

Séance sessions / necromancer / medium

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Drunkenness / alcoholism

Justice of God


The negative effect of living with guilt and constantly living a fake life

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Marital murder-suicide

SUICIDE—What does the Bible say? Answer

About death

About the fall of mankind to worldwide depravity

What is SIN AND WIckedness/ Is it just “bad people” that are sinners, or are YOU a sinner? Answer

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Love triangles


What is sexual immorality?

Sexual lust outside of marriage—Why does God strongly warn us about it?

Is there a way to overcome excessive lust for sex?

Purity—Should I save sex for marriage?

TEMPTATIONS—How can I deal with them?

CONSEQUENCES—What are the consequences of sexual immorality?

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Victims of deceivers

What is biblical WISDOM?

Featuring Bradley CooperStanton “Stan” Carlisle
Cate BlanchettDr. Lilith Ritter
Toni ColletteZeena the Seer
Willem DafoeClem Hoatley
Richard JenkinsEzra Grindle
Rooney MaraMolly Cahill
Ron PerlmanBruno
Mary SteenburgenMrs. Kimball
David StrathairnPete
Tim Blake NelsonCarny Boss
See all »
Director Guillermo del Toro
Producer Bradley Cooper
Guillermo del Toro
See all »
Distributor Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures. Trademark logo.Searchlight Pictures, a sister company of 20th Century Fox, a division of The Walt Disney Company

The 1947 Tyrone Power vehicle, “Nightmare Alley,” endures as a cult film and a noir classic. Directed by Edmund Goulding, it is relatively short (1 hour 50 minutes compared to the recent version’s 2 hours 30 minutes), respectably lean and perfectly paced, despite all its plot twists and setting changes. The film works in wily ways using a psychic’s touch to manipulate what you see, hear, and feel, but it stays grounded by balancing that hocus-pocus with a strong moral core.

In noir fiction, the anti-hero takes an initial wrong turn. His subsequent downward spiral tends to move fast. One transgression, or sin, cues another, and then another, and on it goes. If the process drags, so does the story’s moral impact and driving force. The turgid pace of the new Guillermo del Toro remake blunts the cautionary message of the first adaptation (based on the 1946 novel by William Gresham) and gets lost in bloated story arcs and psychological meanderings.

The Goulding team, and the excellent cast led by Power and supported by Helen Walker in a grand femme fatale performance produce a first-rate crime thriller. Walker’s Siamese cat eyes are as fearsome as they are captivating. She is elusive, alluring and very dangerous, making the apple she offers hard to resist. Her portrayal of the amoral Dr. Ritter ensures her a spot among the most memorable actresses of film noir’s golden age: Jane Greer, Ida Lupino, and Gloria Grahame.

Tyrone Power is a good match for Walker. For a while, anyways. He has great eyes too, and as Stan, a consummate hustler, he never hides them. He understands that there is nothing behind that tempting, wide-open gaze so he can use it as a mirror, reflecting whatever someone wants to see, not what they need to see. Like the ever-patient prince of all lies, he knocks. And waits for us to open the door.

Bradley Cooper, handsome as he is, does not have the magnetism that Power, and all great stars, have. Whether dressed in carny garb or tuxedos, Cooper’s costumes are better tailored than his performance. A lot of the time, fedoras and boater hats cover his eyes. At others, he is filmed in shadow with his glance averted and hair falling uncombed over half his face. His Stan is distant and unreachable, a man with a lot to hide, and little to give. His most gripping moments come when he puts a blindfold on. When the mask comes off, there is, sadly, nothing to reveal.

Cate Blanchett, also an attractive and capable performer, falls even shorter than Cooper. Her portrayal of a devouring monster cloaked in the prestige of a respected doctor should be a feast for an actress, but she plays Dr. Lilith Ritter in a robotic, black-widowy way, unable to shift delicately from fire to ice. Her age may limit her impact as a noir bad girl, but maturity did not impede Barbara Stanwick in “Double Indemnity” or Angelica Huston in more modern crime movies such as “Prizzi’s Honor” or “The Grifters.” Cooper and Blanchett play “the spider and the fly” game so ineptly that even the innuendos, which are the mainstay of many of their scenes together, come off as humorless and terse.

Guillermo del Toro’s direction is lush and fluid, and fortunately, not as fluid overloaded and waterlogged as his previous effort, “The Shape of Things.” But it is also detached and, strange for a drama set in circuses and nightclubs, devoid of color. There are many beautifully composed images (the cinematography is by Dan Laustsen; the production design, by Tamara Deverish), but those touches are more atmospheric than dramatic. The 1947 film employed black and white photography mixing chiaroscurist shading with sharp camera angles. It played down the side-show elements of carny life in order to reveal that human aberration is most often an internal trait, not a readily visible, and exploitable, external deformity.

Both film versions give voice to the warning that there are limits to magic. So-called “white magic” is usually harmless trickery meant to entertain, but black magic is decidedly black, and should be avoided. It is something that should never be practiced on what the mentalists in the film refer to as “God fearing people.” The dangers begin when the warning is taken as an entreaty instead of as an omen. Tyrone Power’s Stan accepts what comes after the misstep: the fall, the punishment, the redemption. Cooper’s Stan seems to submerge himself in what Revelations calls “the fiery lake of burning sulfur” that awaits those who practice the dark arts. There is no redeemer in his deck of Tarot cards, only a hangman. Yet the most woeful thing I can say about this new version is that the anti-hero’s tragic end comes not in the last frame of the film, but in the first. His later crimes, craven and soulless as they are, never match his first one.

Stanton “Stan” Carlisle works for a traveling carnival. He meets its iniquitous manager Clem (a perfectly cast Willem Dafoe) who shows him the circus’ top money-making attraction: a lost soul referred to as a “geek” who for liquor, drugs and a place to sleep, is willing to perform the squalid crowd-pleasing act of biting the heads off live chickens. The over graphic depiction (left out of the original film version) is akin to the loaded gun scene in the first act of Chekhov dramas. As the gun is bound to return in a play’s last act, the geek will come back, and so will the chicken.

Stan meets Madame Zeena (Toni Collette), a mentalist and her alcoholic partner, Pete (David Strathairn), who teach him the mind reading techniques that have made their act a solid but modest success. Stan wants to take their schemes to higher levels, but Zeena and Pete warn him that their formula is meant to entertain and not to harm or cruelly deceive. Stan not only ignores the advice but eliminates one of the advisers. He then marries fellow carnival performer, Molly (Rooney Mara in an underwritten part), and the two leave the tents behind to start a nightclub act called “The Great Stanton.”

The show becomes a hit in elite Chicago nightclubs, and Stan is now a star. Molly takes questions from the audience and gives verbal signals to a blindfolded Stan who, in turn, can surprise the questioner by telling them what their innermost thoughts are, and what they have concealed in their pockets and purses.

At one of the performances, psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is in the audience. She is skeptical but curious, and through a series of cunning maneuvers brings Stan into her world as both patient and collaborator. She hatches a scheme that promises to be a bigger swindle than even Stan could devise, something that would ensure a big payout for both. He puts it all on the line, even using Molly as a ploy in the deception, as he grasps for what he thinks is the infinite.

By the time the set-up is put into play the movie has already gone on far too long. Nonetheless, the last several minutes do have some fast-paced, if needlessly savage and blood-soaked, moments which kept me on the edge of the seat I had started to doze in. Had the movie quickened its step before those climactic moments, it might have saved itself.

“Nightmare Alley” could have been a modern-day film noir to savor and to take a warning from about reaching too high too fast. Instead, it is a dirge, a long one, whose final note might appear to be laughter or even a resigned cry, but is actually a chicken’s crow coming from a marked man resigning himself to a life in Nod.

  • Violence: Very Heavy— • several people murdered (murder-suicide, beatings, purposely struck violently by car and victim then fatally driven over) (bloody) • attempted strangulation • man threatened with knife • fighting, punching, hitting, clubbing, shooting • man kills a chicken by biting its head off (bloody) • woman shoots husband (bloody) • woman shoots herself in face • man strike another man with a rock to the head (blood) • man tells sick elderly father that he has always hated him and then causes him to freeze to death by opening his window in winter • haunted house scenes • carnival grotesque oddities on display • bloody knuckles pierced by glass shards • man smears blood on walls and more • woman backhanded to the ground by man
  • Drugs/Alcohol: Very Heavy— • alcoholic man • comments about source of carnival’s “wild men”: homeless hard drug addicts and drunks • drinking in several scenes • man killed by drinking wood alcohol
  • Profane language: Heavy— • “Jesus” (2) • “Oh Chr*st” (1) • “G*d d*mn” (4) • “Oh G*d” (4) • “Christ Almighty” (1) • “My G*d” (1) • “H*ll” (1)
  • Vulgar/Crude language: Heavy— • f-words (8+), including 2 “mother-f***er” • s-words (4) • “do it” (sex) • “cr*p” (2) • “The b*lls on him” (1) • “b*tch” (2) • “b*stard” (1) • “You smell like you p*ssed your pants” (1) • Men seen standing at urinals
  • Occult: Heavy
  • Sex: Moderately Heavy— • Man in bathtub being pleasured by woman • Woman in costume talks about lust • Kissing • Comment about human embryos in jars being made from the same lust that created everyone • Angry woman who suspects her lover of infidelity says, “You're certainly not f***ing me anymore.”
  • Nudity: Moderate— • Man’s bare butt seen as he enters bathtub in front of woman • Woman opens her top in front of man revealing her cleavage and a torso scar and he kisses the scar and scene appears to proceed to sex • Woman in bikini • Cleavage • Women wearing midriff-revealing tops

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
—Excellent analysis of the OG film, which I just watched last night. So true about Helen Walker, who turned in an unexpectedly terrifying performance as the shady shrink.

Correction: “The Shape of Water”
My Ratings: Moral rating: no opinion / Moviemaking quality: no opinion
Keith Rowe, age 51 (USA)

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