Photo of characters from the movie Nightmare Alley

‘Nightmare Alley’ Reimagines a Thrilling Noir Classic a Second Time

The 1946 book gets another film adaptation courtesy of Guillermo del Toro.
January 5, 2022
7 mins read

Released in December 2021, “Nightmare Alley” is director Guillermo del Toro’s newest neo-noir psychological thriller. Inspired by William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name, the film follows middle-aged drifter Stan Carlisle as he travels to a second-rate carnival and unravels its mysteries, all set in the mid-20th century.

What We Know

The official trailer for “Nightmare Alley” doesn’t reveal much. However, the film is of the noir genre, meaning that its thematic motifs revolve around the characterization of alienation, moral ambivalence, paranoia and revenge.

“Nightmare Alley” embraces the standard cinematography of the noir genre to convey its story in a dramatic manner. Low-key lighting emphasizes contrasts and shadows, unbalanced framing blurs the line between right and wrong, and undertones of madness and despair all work to establish the storyline’s secrets, deceit and crimes.

Carlisle’s character, played by Bradley Cooper, is depicted as the traditional anti-hero of the story, which is intertwined with the illusions of show business. Using his newfound knowledge of how the local carnies hustle and swindle, Carlisle refines his trickery to support his sinister motives.

Other characters who support the overall arc of the film include a corrupt psychiatrist named Lilith Ritter, played by Cate Blanchett; carnival worker Molly Cahill, portrayed by Rooney Mara; carnival owner Clem Hoately, who is played by Willem Dafoe; clairvoyant married duo Zeena and Pete Krumbein, who are portrayed by Toni Collette and David Strathairn, respectively; and the dangerously powerful Ezra Grindle, played by Richard Jenkins.


Despite its $60 million budget, “Nightmare Alley” has performed relatively poorly at the box office; however, some recent reviews depict the film as an outstanding critical success. Other reviews, on the other hand, are more mixed, arguing that the 2021 film doesn’t stand up against its 1947 counterpart.

The Arts Fuse’s Nicole Veneto gave the film a positive review; she praised del Toro’s ability to capture film noir in his “signature brand of the grotesque.” Veneto continued to compliment del Toro’s decision to base his film on the book instead of re-adapting the original film version. “Though del Toro is a fan of Goulding’s version, his take on ‘Nightmare Alley’ hews closer to the spirit of the novel,” she said. “There are a couple of nods to the Goulding film but, overall, del Toro’s ‘Nightmare Alley’ is his own interpretation of the source material.”

Veneto urged her readers to pay respect to del Toro’s originality: “What defines del Toro’s style isn’t a sentimental attraction to the weird and the supernatural, but rather how he delves into recurring concerns, like war and social stratification, in every one of his films.”

Jonathan Sim of ComingSoon has a less enthusiastic review. Sim explained that “Nightmare Alley” possesses valuable cinematic attributes such as intriguing characters, authentic dialogue and “impeccable craftsmanship.” But Sim also admits that the film is not for everyone and rates it a 7/10 — a ranking described as “good” on the ComingSoon’s review policy. Factors that could make the film less appealing are its 2 1/2-hour runtime, its slow buildup and its limited screen time for some of its A-list actors.

CinemaBlend presents a wide range of critic reviews from The Hollywood Reporter (THR), SlashFilm, The Playlist and even CinemaBlend itself, all of which have differing accounts of the quality of “Nightmare Alley.”

THRSlashFilm and CinemaBlend’s critics became smitten with del Toro’s film and applauded its talented cast, notably Blanchett’s act in the second half. They also praised the movie’s suspenseful twists and turns and its variation of noir, which made watching the film a truly theatrical experience. “As good as the first half of ‘Nightmare Alley’ may be, it really comes to life when Lilith shows up, played by Cate Blanchett. Blanchett was born to be a femme fatale in a film noir, and del Toro knows it,” said SlashFilm.

On the other hand, The Playlist’s critic was quite blunt in their dislike of the film. They suggest that the movie tries too hard and lacks the urgency needed to keep the plot in line with where it wants to go. Lacking emotional depth and poorly casting a protagonist, “Nightmare Alley” doesn’t do it for The Playlist. “Bloated at nearly 140 minutes with Cooper clearly miscast in the lead, it struggles to maintain urgency. Dreary and overly saturated with a CGI patina, this new take on ‘Nightmare Alley’ adds more gore and f-bombs to the source material but ultimately remains emotionally inert and unclear exactly what it wants to say about these characters and the world they inhabit,” The Playlist critic explained.

Comparison to “Nightmare Alley” (1947)

For people skeptical that “Nightmare Alley” is just a replica of the 1947 film by the same name, it’s not. Though both adaptions of the 1946 novel have similar characters and storylines, del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” dives further into a darkness that few films made in the mid-20th century could effectively explore. In addition, Screen Rant says that the 2021 adaptation contains more violence, different relationships between characters and a surprisingly distinct ending.

Final Thoughts

“Nightmare Alley” seems to be a worthy watch for anyone looking to get lost in a maze of uncertainty. With the film mostly generating positive reviews, it appears to be another success for del Toro and the film’s cast. Ultimately, the juxtaposition of the original adaptation and the new reveals something wholly original and unexpected.

Tori Walz, Eastern Michigan University

Writer Profile

Tori Walz

Eastern Michigan University
English with a Concentration in Professional Writing

Hi I am Tori and I am glad to be here. :)

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