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Nightmare Alley


Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star in a scene from the movie "Nightmare Alley." The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. (CNS photo/Kerry Hayes, 20th Century Studios)


By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service


        NEW YORK (CNS) - The title "Nightmare Alley" (Searchlight) at least gives moviegoers fair warning of what awaits them in director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro's noir-inspired screen version of William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel, scripted with Kim Morgan.

        Long on atmosphere but short on ethics, his journey through high places and low is not a suitable trip for most cinematic tourists.

        Gresham's book was first edgily adapted the year after its publication with British-born helmer Edmund Goulding presiding and Tyrone Power in the leading role. Power was apparently aiming to break free of his stereotyped derring-do persona by playing an anti-hero. Although the result was too seamy for many at the time, it has since risen to the status of a classic.

        Now, Bradley Cooper takes on the character of Gresham's protagonist, Stanton Carlisle. A Depression-era drifter, Stanton becomes fascinated with mentalism after joining the crew of a low-rent traveling carnival run by seedy impresario Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe).

        Having been instructed in the craft by husband-and-wife clairvoyants Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn) Krumbein, Stanton departs the sideshow for a career on his own. He's accompanied by Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), another member of the troupe for whom he has fallen.

        Flash forward to the eve of World War II and the now-married couple have hit the big time performing in elegant nightclubs.

        But Stanton's steamy affair with hard-edged psychoanalyst Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), whom he first meets when she publicly challenges the legitimacy of his act, imperils his good fortune. So, too, does his reckless attempt to dupe Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a wealthy, powerful industrialist haunted by his guilty past.

        As the preceding credits make clear, there's no lack of acting talent on tap in "Nightmare Alley." Thus Dafoe ably exudes sleaziness and Strathairn is particularly fine as a conflicted, washed-up, alcoholic "seer" who warns against the kind of victimization to which Stanton eventually subjects Grindle.

        Yet, given that he's an amoral huckster, it's hard to sympathize with or feel connected to Stanton -- and that makes it difficult to warm to the picture as a whole. The screenplay, moreover, seems more interested in wallowing in moral sordidness than in condemning it. To that extent, the litter-strewn alley through which del Toro conducts his audience turns out to be a willfully blind one.

        The film contains skewed values, considerable harsh v

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