Nightmare Alley Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

America, 1939 Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) wanders aimlessly around the traveling fair, looking at all sorts of sights, like the “man-beast”, and at some point, the huge strong man Bruno (Ron Perlman), performing with his number, offers him a job: coming thunderstorm, the fair needs to be unmounted in time and loaded into cars.

After work, Stan went for the promised dollar to the head of the fair, Clem (Willem Dafoe), the owner of that same “man-beast”: he offers to buy Stan’s radio, which he wears under his arm – apparently, this is the only thing he has – and promises to feed Carlisle a hot supper when the fair arrives.

As a result, Stan stayed to work at the fair. He helps Clem, he also befriends the soothsayer Zeena (Toni Collette) and her hard-drinking husband Pete (David Strathairn). At one time, Pete taught Zina all sorts of tricks about how to fool people’s heads with all sorts of “predictions” and “clairvoyance”. Stan was very interested in all this, and he asked Pete to teach him all these tricks, but Pete does not agree to reveal to Stan all his secrets, which are set out in a special book.

Another participant of the fair is a young girl named Molly (Rooney Mara): she shows spectacular numbers with electricity, she is helped in this by the strong man Bruno and his partner, the dwarf Major (Mark Povinelli). Moreover, Bruno and the Major also keep an eye on Molly, and begin to threaten Stan, who is clearly interested in the girl and in every possible way incites wedges to her.

But Bruno’s threats do not impress Stan: Molly is clearly not indifferent to him, and Stan persuades Molly to leave this stupid fair, leave and start joint performances in order to earn completely different money. Stan also figured out how to get Pete’s treasured book. To do this, you have to do something very bad, but Stan is ready for this.


Nightmare Alley is a 1946 book by American writer William Lindsay Gresham. Gresham was attracted from childhood to fairs and fairground performances, he himself was a traveling magician and mentalist, and in Nightmare Alley he wrote about what he himself knew well. Now the novel is actually a classic of American noir, but when the book went on sale, it, on the one hand, attracted some attention from the audience, but, on the other hand, it was called immoral and demanded to be banned.

Nevertheless, in 1947 the book was filmed in Hollywood with the participation of then-movie stars Tyrone Powers (Stan), Joan Blondell (Zina), Colin Gray (Molly) and Helen Walker (Dr. Lilith Ritter). At the same time, the studio went to great expense, building a fully functioning fair on an area of ​​​​40 thousand square meters, on which one hundred working attractions were installed. The film aroused some interest, but unlike the book, it never became a classic – few people remember it now.

To make a remake of this film was the idea of ​​Guillermo del Toro himself. He saw an old movie, he was very interested in the topic of all these “clairvoyants” and “psychics”, and for him this issue was purely personal: he told the National Public Radio program that in 1998 his father was kidnapped in Mexico from in order to obtain a ransom, and the police involved in the release of the hostage warned the director that all sorts of “psychics” would certainly offer their services to his family. Moreover, when the director, after talking with the police, hung up and went to his mother, he saw that two Gavriks were already sitting in her living room, saying that they, they say, “feel”, where her husband is, and they can about it tell – for the appropriate money, of course. The director kicked them out of the house with kicks, but he remembered

The screenplay was written by Guillermo del Toro himself in collaboration with Kim Morgan. The development of the project began in 2017, and Leonardo DiCaprio was planned for the main role, and Michael Shannon was also supposed to play the role of drunk Pete. However, no agreement was reached with Leonardo on financial matters – the film’s budget was relatively small, and it was planned to employ several fairly well-known actors – and as a result, the role of Stan went to Bradley Cooper.

After all these upheavals, filming only started in January 2020, and then they had to be stopped due to the coronavirus. Interestingly, when Bradley Cooper was sitting at home during a forced break from filming, Paul Thomas Anderson invited Cooper to play a small role in his film Licorice Pizza, and Bradley, although he was afraid of contracting the coronavirus, could not refuse Anderson, so Anderson starred in the film, and his role turned out to be excellent.

What did Guillermo del Toro end up with, who is best known for creating dark thrillers like The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as fantasy action films with bizarre creatures like Hellboy or Hellboy II?

First of all, since I did manage to watch Nightmare Alley in 1947, I must say that the new film is exactly a remake of the original picture. There are remakes that are very free, having little intersection with the original film – like, for example, the wonderful “Gentlemen’s Games” by the Coens: with the original “Killer of a Lady” it had in common only the very beginning of the plot – but in this case, purely plot-wise, this is a pure remake, because the vast majority of the events of the new film coincide with the original picture and differ only in particulars.

But, by the way, there is nothing wrong with this, because Guillermo del Toro is an original, original director, and this, of course, is not a copy of an old film, but rather such a creative rethinking that has a right to exist.

At the same time, del Toro did not fill his picture with any mysticism and frightening creatures, in the creation of which he is generally a great master, and even vice versa – he wanted to show that all these “clairvoyants”, “seers” and “mentalists” are just crooks that fool people’s heads. And it’s one thing when it’s just some kind of fair numbers (which Stan Pete spoke about in the film), and quite another when someone claims that he can really communicate with the world of the dead.

Keeping the full plot structure of the original film (I can’t tell how clearly this correlates with the book, because I have not read the book) has quite a beneficial effect on del Toro’s picture: because there is such an old-school style here, when the action moves strictly linearly, the plot twists well thought out, there are no “figs in your pocket” and at the same time nothing can be predicted: every time you think you understand how events will develop further, it turns out that you were wrong.

At the same time, the very manner of staging is such a cool and very stylish noir. Moreover, the picture is clearly divided into two completely different halves: the first is a traveling fair (it’s a circus, it’s a Carnival, in the original), the second is Stan and Molly, dressed, respectively, in a tuxedo and evening dress, arrange performances for high society, with In this Stan meets Dr. Lilith Ritter, and conceives a very dangerous scam with millionaire Ezra Grindle: here if the scam succeeds, he will receive a fortune, and if not, then he risks death.

The first half with the fair in terms of the style of the production resembles a good HBO series “Carnivàle” (in Russia it was called “Carnival”), which told about a traveling circus and all sorts of mysterious events associated with it: it came out in 2003-2005, had its fans and a good rating, but it is not clear why it was closed after the second season. I watched this series and I really liked it.

However, Nightmare Alley reminds him only in style, but has a clearly defined face of his own: cool Clem with his story about who and how he turns into a man-beast (by the way, in the original, and it was in the 1947 film, this beast is called on the poster as Geek), a wonderful couple of Zina (Zeena) and Pete, excellent Bruno and Major. It all looked very cool, and I was not averse to watching this whole rather long (2.5 hour) film just about this traveling fair.

But the second half of the film is no less interesting, and it is filmed in a completely different style: here already – real noir, luxurious interiors, high society and upper-class scammers – the hardened Stan, who has honed his skills, and the coolest lady psychologist who keeps many of his secrets and plays his own game. Stan, who has become very self-confident, believes that he will be able to outplay Dr. Lilith, but it is still completely unknown who will outplay whom and how. And here the style of production was more reminiscent of Nolan’s The Prestige, a film that I also really liked.

Both halves of the picture – although different, but really well staged and well played. I really liked it, and I didn’t expect anything like that: when I started watching Nightmare Alley, not knowing anything about this project, I thought that del Toro would return to his old style of creating all sorts of very frightening creatures, but in the end I got a really exciting and a very stylish film that I watched with great pleasure.

Bradley Cooper was great as Stan. I really like this actor (he is also a good director, recently): with his appearance of such a handsome man, he often chooses very difficult roles, and here he has a very ambiguous character – initially a kind of tramp with skeletons in the closet, ready for any job, then a cool self-confident swindler who thinks that everything is under his control now, well, after that – I won’t say how everything will end there, you just need to look.

By the way, there was a very interesting moment with the finale. The final for Guillermo del Toro was very important. And the director said that he was ready to shoot fifty or sixty takes – just to get what he wanted from Bradley Cooper. (I must say right away that in the original, although the ending was similar, it was staged much less spectacularly.) So, in the end, the ending was shot on the first take, and Cooper was really great in this (as in all episodes of this film).

I must say that so many wonderful actors play here that even just listing them is quite a long time. Therefore, I will focus only on the most significant roles. Of course, the second most important role is Dr. Lilith Ritter, which was beautifully played by Kate Blanchett. It was absolutely her role, and few people could play Lilith so bright, classy and cool.

The third most important role in this film is the millionaire Ezra Grindle, played by a very good actor Richard Jenkins. Richard often plays all sorts of weak-willed and at the same time very touching characters (“What Olivia Knows”, “Burn After Reading”), but here he is a tough millionaire who acts very tough, who survived a terrible tragedy in life, and he is able to make a person rich, who at least somehow helps him do something with it, and is able to destroy him instantly – there are no barriers for him. And Richard played this Grindle wonderfully: a dangerous man, weighed down by his past crime, who is ready for anything.

Rooney Mara as Molly – this character, in general, plays a prominent role here, but not to say that the actress herself (she’s not bad, yes) impressed me with something. Well, Molly and Molly – she was very lost against the background of both Cooper and many other minor characters.

But I will definitely mention the wonderful Toni Colette, who played Zina, although she has a very small role here. But Colette is such a bright and original actress, and with her very non-standard appearance, that she was immediately remembered here even in that small episode that she had. (On IMDB, the story that Cooper, who appeared completely naked in the bath scene in Zeena and Pete’s house, was so worried, so worried – took up a prominent block of text in Trivia, and in the film from this – well, Cooper is standing in front of the bath naked from the back (and only the torso is visible there), well, what is all the fuss about? Why were you so worried, so worried?)

All in all, a great movie that I didn’t even expect to get from this director (although I also really liked his previous film “The Shape of Water”, which was criticized by many). I will not recommend watching this movie to everyone, but for those who love a good story, excellent acting and stylish production, I think it makes sense for them to watch this picture.

PS Some screenshots from the 1947 film.


Stan and Zina



Stan and the sheriff

Stan and Dr. Lilith

Millionaire Ezra Grindle


Nightmare Alley


Guillermo del Toro


Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Kate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Mary Steenbergen, Mark Povinelli, Holt McCallany, Tim Blake Nelson

Budget: $60 million,
International gross:
$40 million
Crime noir thriller,
150 min.

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