Nightmare Alley

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a man receiving a polygraph in Nightmare Alley movie

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Emily Clark

Movie Review

Sometimes you don’t see the line until you’ve crossed it.

Such is the case for Stanton Carlisle, aka “The Great Stanton,” a Chicago mentalist.

He’s not really psychic, of course. He learned the act from a talented circus couple, Zeena and Pete, who used a verbal code and cold readings to gather information about their patrons and pretend to read their minds.

But Stan wasn’t satisfied traveling from town to town making meager earnings. So, he convinced Molly, a circus performer known as “The Electric Girl,” to run away from the circus and help him create a more permanent version of Zeena and Pete’s act in Chicago.

And for the past two years, they’ve been getting on pretty well. That is, until a local psychologist catches “The Great Stanton” in the act of deceiving one of her patients.

Stan manages to play it off, using his talent for cold readings to humiliate the psychologist, Dr. Lilith Ritter, and convince her patient of his authenticity.

But after the show, Lilith’s patient—a well-known judge—wants more. He asks for a private séance with Stanton so that he and his wife might speak to their dead son.

Against the wishes of Molly, Stanton agrees. But first, he seeks the assistance of Dr. Ritter.

The two realize they aren’t all that different. They both gather information about their patrons, figure out what they want to hear and then sell it back to them. And they both want money. So, it’s not much of a surprise when Lilith (who records all her sessions with patients) decides to give Stanton the information he’ll need to swindle the judge.

Of course, pretending to be a soul-channeling medium is quite different from pretending to read a mind. And soon after faking the spiritual conversation, Stanton is asked to use his gifts again—this time by Ezra Grindle, a wealthy and eccentric businessman.

Molly begs Stanton not to help him. Zeena warns him that “spook shows” are dangerous. And even Lilith states that “dealings with Grindle have permanent consequences.”

But he’s the great Stanton. And he doesn’t believe there’s any way he’ll be caught again.

Positive Elements

A man says he cares for his employer and is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep the older gentleman safe.

Spiritual Elements

Grindle tells Stanton that he doesn’t want to “unburden” his soul or have Stanton forgive him, because that’s what a priest does. He simply wants to communicate with his long-lost love and appease his own guilty conscience of her death.

Although Zeena and Pete, Stan’s mentors, pretend to read minds, they admit they are frauds. They try to avoid “spook shows” (where they pretend to speak to the dead), since these tend to cause more harm than good. That said, Zeena believes that tarot cards can really predict the future and uses them frequently for herself and her friends.

Pete says he stopped performing on stage and let Zeena take over because he started believing his own lies and hurting “good, God-fearing people.” He says he lied until he was staring God in the face and quit because he knew no man could outrun God. And he warns Stan that if he isn’t careful, he could wind up on the same path.

A circus funhouse shows images of the seven deadly sins, telling people they are damned and need to repent. One archway is carved in the shape of a devil’s mouth.

We hear quite a bit about hypocrisy—people will sin during the week and then “spout Jesus” or “kiss the priest’s toe on Sunday.”

Some nuns sit in the back of a diner. A cross is emblazoned with “Jesus Saves.” Someone says a name is from the Bible. Stan tells a man to pray and “have faith” while tricking him.

Sexual Content

We see Stan’s naked rear end and profile as he enters a bath. Zeena reaches into the water and performs a sexual act on him. They also make out. (Zeena is cheating on Pete when this happens, though it’s unclear if they’re married or not.)

Stan and Molly make out. She tells him she is a virgin, and it is implied they at least begin a sexual relationship (it’s never mentioned if they wed). We see them embracing in bed together in later scenes.

The adultery continues when Stan kisses Lilith. (And we hear that Stan’s own mother was “taken” from his father by his stepfather.) We see Lilith’s chest when she reveals a scar (her breasts are covered by a jacket). Stan kisses the scar, hinting that they take things further.

One of the circus acts is called the “Sultan’s Dancers,” which takes place in what is called a “pleasure dome.” Molly is nearly arrested for indecency since she wears a bedazzled bikini for her act. Someone says a woman is promiscuous. Transference (the act of redirecting feelings and emotions toward one’s psychologist) occurs between Lilith and a patient, with the man seeing her as both a mistress and a mother. There is a crude reference to male genitals.

Violent Content

A man admits he forced his girlfriend to have an abortion and that the procedure killed her. (Someone dresses as the woman to frighten him with fake blood covering her hands and abdomen.) We learn the man abused many others after her in his anger over her untimely death. We see him hit a woman in the face.

A man hits another guy repeatedly in the face until the victim’s nose is literally ripped from his skull. The victim’s bodyguard shoots at the assaulter but misses. The assaulter then hits the bodyguard with a car and runs over the body a second time, severing several of the man’s limbs.

After her son dies in war at the age of 23, a woman commits murder-suicide so she and her husband can “join” him.

Stan joins the circus after seeing the emaciated “geek” bite a live chicken’s head off and drink the blood. He asks Clem, one of the other carnies, where geeks come from. Clem says they aren’t found, they’re made. And he describes a gruesome process that involves physical and mental torture combined with forced addiction and starvation.

Later, when the geek escapes his cage, he hits Stan with a rock. And Stan (who previously refused to harm the man) hits him back with a metal pipe, cutting the man’s head open. We learn the wound becomes infected and infested with flies.

An ill man dies from exposure after his son purposely opens a window to the winter air and takes the old man’s blanket away. The man’s corpse is then placed under some floorboards, and the house is set on fire to hide the evidence.

Another man is killed after accidentally ingesting wood alcohol.

A woman hints that she was raped. Another shows a large scar on her chest claiming that “if you displease the wrong people, the world closes in on you very fast.” A man attempts to strangle a woman with a phone cord. We hear a man’s stepfather was “inappropriate and abusive.” A circus strongman hits Stan repeatedly, threatening to kill him if he hurts Molly.

A woman claims to carry a pistol in her purse for protection, but a man theorizes it’s actually to make herself feel more powerful. [Spoiler warning] She later uses the pistol to shoot the man twice. He survives, but his ear is hanging off his head.

A man collects and pickles preborn and stillborn babies (many of whom are physically disfigured), and he claims several killed their mothers in childbirth. Molly smacks Stan after he physically hurts two people. Skeletons decorate a funhouse.

Crude or Profane Language

We hear the f-word nine times (twice preceded by “mother”) and the s-word four times, as well as “b–tard,” “h—” and “p-ss.” God’s name is abused seven times (twice paired with “d–n”), and Christ’s name is abused another four.

Drug and Alcohol Content

One of the key characteristics of a geek is substance abuse. Clem searches for men who are already alcoholics and lures them into the job with the promise of booze. He then spikes the drink with opium so that they become dependent on it. (One man who understands this process still willingly complies in his desperation.)

Many people falsely believe a man who struggled with alcohol abuse drank himself to death. (In reality, he was mistakenly given a bottle of wood alcohol instead of moonshine.)

Several women beg their romantic partners not to drink. But one woman makes it her goal to trick a man proud of his abstinence into drinking. (She succeeds.) We hear about several people who struggle with alcohol abuse, and we see a few drunken people. A man sells off his most prized possession for alcohol.

People smoke cigarettes and drink throughout (and one person smokes a cigar).

Other Negative Elements

Circuses have been known to exploit human beings, and the ones Stan finds himself at are no exception. Patrons hiss and boo at people with physical deformities. They gawk at contortionists, strongmen and mentalists.

But as bad as the circus-goers are, they possibly aren’t as bad as the carnies themselves.

At first glance, this tight-knit group operates under the rule that it doesn’t matter where you came from or what you did before, you’re family now. And as such, they love and defend each other. But this noble sentiment doesn’t extend to everyone since the circus’s geeks are literally kept in cages and tortured. (When one becomes sick from an infection, they abandon him at a homeless shelter rather than seek medical aid.) And considering many geeks are war veterans who became addicts as a method of coping, this exclusion becomes even sadder.

The circuses profit from this abuse. The carnies here are all swindlers and liars, selling either their own or their fellows’ bodies. Even the innocent-seeming Molly is willing to play along for the promise of cash.

A few carnies, such as Pete, seem to regret their actions and admit their fraudulence. But this doesn’t stop him from helping Zeena to carry on with her own deception.

Stan convinces Molly to run away with him by promising to give her the world. However, once they become successful in Chicago, he becomes critical of her, growing angry when she makes mistakes in their act, insulting her and just generally treating her like garbage. And when she tries to break free of the toxic relationship, he manipulates her into staying, telling her that he loves her and needs her to survive.

Lilith accepts a bribe from Stan, selling private information about her patients (and allowing him to steal some) so he can hustle them for money. She also admits that she’s a bit of a fraud herself. And while it sometimes seems like Stan is trying to make people feel better about their pasts, he’s really just manipulating their pain and guilt for profit.

People lie, steal and double-cross each other. Someone says a man smells like urine. People run from the cops.

It’s stated that if you’re good at reading people—as the mentalists are—it’s because you learned the skill young as a method of staying one step ahead of those who might otherwise cause you pain.

Conclusion

Stanton Carlisle crosses so many lines in this film, it’s not a matter of not knowing where they are, it’s a matter of not knowing what a line is.

A carny tells him early on, “Folks here don’t make mind who you are or what you done.” But maybe they should.

Stanton says that he’s a mind-reader, diviner and medium, but really, he’s a liar, thief and murderer. And he betrays not just his audiences, but those close to him as well. Every woman who comes into contact with the man is insulted, neglected and manipulated by him. And though he has moments of sympathy for those less fortunate, he’s really only interested in doing what’s best for Stanton.

That’s my analysis of the main character. Here’s my analysis of the rest:

Nightmare Alley isn’t P.T. Barnum’s circus. Murder, gory violence, forced back-alley abortions and foul language barely scratch the surface of this nightmarish film about a man pretending to have the ability to read minds.

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Emily Clark
Emily Clark

Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.