Nightmare Alley

Stan and Zeena

2021’s Nightmare Alley isn’t based on the 1947 film noir of the same name, so we’re told by various venerable authorities. Tell that to the judge. Even if it genuinely is a bona fide and honest reworking of the same source material, William Lindsay Gresham’s smash 1946 novel, even a quick look at the 1947 movie is enough to convince anyone that this Nightmare Alley has seen the older one, taken notes and then studied them hard.

This extends to the casting choices. These start with Bradley Cooper as the grifter who starts out as a nobody in a carnival, works his way to the top of showbiz with a mentalist routine, over-reaches himself and is suddenly chuted back to way lower than where he started. As both movies bring down the curtain, a broken Stanton Carlisle (Cooper here, Tyrone Power originally) is about to play the bottom of the bill, as The Geek, the booze-sodden, cage-dwelling half-man/half-beast who terrifies carnival crowds by dementedly biting the head off a live chicken.

Other roles go to read-acrosses of the original cast. Even down to hair colour in the case of the three significant women in Stan’s life. There’s Zeena the seen-it-all-dearie carnival seer who teaches Stan the carnival ropes, played by a blonde Toni Collette. Molly (dark-haired Rooney Mara), the sweet, innocent thing who runs off with Stan after he’s stolen the secrets to Zeena’s mentalist act. And Stan’s ultimate nemesis, blonde femme fatale Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett in another of those vagina dentata roles).

It’s a Guillermo del Toro film and so a) it’s way too long, b) del Toro’s love of the elaborate picturesque often gets in the way of the drama and c) it cries out “Look, Ma, I’m making Cinema! Cinema! I tell you” from its opening shot to its last, the camera never still when it can be gliding, sliding, craning up and down, moving in and out.

Molly and Stan in a dressing room
Going up: Molly and Stan

Del Toro is one of world’s most luxuriant film-makers and Nightmare Alley is best approached as an exercise in visual spectacle. There is lots to enjoy at this level, though again the 1947 film is the noirish reference point. Considering how much money and computer whatnot del Toro has compared to 1947 director Edmund Goulding, you’d expect him to outgun the older director in every department. But interestingly, in the spectacular climax – when Stan’s mentalism almost bags him a fortune courtesy of a desperate rich magnate (Richard Jenkins) who wants a glimpse of his dead daughter – Goulding leaves del Toro sprawling in the dust.

Tyrone Power was the original star and though he made the film to get away from being typecast as a horny pirate or a strapping caballero, the camera of Goulding (and ace DP Lee Garmes) repeatedly got right up in his face for massive shots of Power’s pert features. Del Toro and DP Dan Laustsen (who also worked on The Shape of Water and Crimson Peak, though his best work is on the remarkable-looking Norwegian film Headhunters) also go large, and there are some fabulous close-ups, Bradley Cooper fans, particularly when Stan is dealing with brittley sexy shrink Dr Lilith. This really is a film that’s worth seeing on as big a screen as you can possibly manage, assuming you believe (sorry, Martin Scorsese, who took out adverts imploring people to go out and see it) that it’s worth seeing at all.

No, I didn’t like it much. It’s half an hour longer than the original, which is also too long, and has exactly the same arc, hits the same plot beats and yet manages to drain almost all of the drama out on its journey. Is this Stanton a wrong’un, as the original made clear? Or just a drifter who doesn’t know when to say “enough”? Del Toro doesn’t seem sure, and the soundtrack by Nathan Johnson reinforces that impression with its relentless stuf-stuff-stuffstuffstuff-is-about-to-happen vamping. Stuff does happen, but most of it doesn’t mean a stuff.

There’s one great moment in it, one genius del Toro sequence reminding us of how good he can be, right after Stanton has been exposed as the terrible fraud he is, has committed a couple of bloody crimes in rapid succession and is then driving away like the wind through a snowy night. In lights, camera and action, Del Toro catches the desperate, droomed drama of the moment. All his guns are suddenly firing in the same direction. Like the car, the movie suddenly seems to be motoring. Too late. Ten minutes later Nightmare Alley is all over.

Nightmare Alley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

I’m Not There

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

19 March

Bob Dylan releases first album, 1962

Having dropped out of the University of Minnesota and relocated to New York City to visit the dying Woody Guthrie and break into performing, today in 1962 Bob Dylan released his first album. Eponymously titled Bob Dylan it came about after Dylan played harmonica on Carolyn Hester’s album in September 1961 and caught the eye of producer John Hammond.

Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia Records in October 1961 and within five months the album was done. It was a collection of folk standards, coffeehouse favourites plus two Dylan originals – Song to Woody (loosely based on Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre) and Talkin’ New York. The album’s personnel consisted of Dylan on vocals, guitar and harmonica, and that was it. The album failed to sell.

I’m Not There (2007, dir: Todd Haynes)

A film about Bob Dylan that uses a different actor to play the man in various stages of his career. Sounds fairly unremarkable on the face of it, the sort of thing that happens all the time. But Richard Gere as Dylan? An African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin)? A woman (Cate Blanchett)? Director Todd Haynes throws in Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw as the other three Dylans in a film whose stunt casting threatens to obscure its purpose – by adopting the freewheeling approach Haynes is trying to get closer to a character who has spent his life constantly creating and erasing his own myth.

Well that’s the puff. Constructed as a series of episodes, with a different Dylan in each, the look and shooting style changing to match, this kaleidoscopic retelling of the Dylan biography avoids the trap of serving up familiar snippets. And when it does, it refracts them, twisting them into new shapes, much as Dylan himself twisted the fairly staid forms of folk into his own vehicle for expression.
Haynes takes Dylan pretty much at his own estimation of himself – cool, smart, honest, only occasionally a monster, while the famous songs (Idiot Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, The Times They Are A-Changin’ etc) are used as a commentary on the man’s life as he lived it.

Some things really stand out – as if the multiple casting for Dylan wasn’t enough (though Todd Solondz had done something not too dissimilar with his Alice in Wonderland-esque Palindromes in 2004) – one is the way that Haynes presents the 60s as a strange, distant, other world. Which of course it is now – further away culturally than chronologically – but Haynes was among the first to put this observation on film. Another is the way that Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman draw comparisons between the 1960s and the time of the Old West (usually, with the 1960s, it’s the Edwardians and all that Sgt Pepper militaria).

As for the performances as Dylan, take your pick. Blanchett has been praised, though she’s a touch self-conscious. But then maybe she’s meant to be; she’s playing Dylan at his most iconic – shades, skinny black suit, smart haircut, at just the moment when he became the most famous pop star in the world, an icon in silhouette. A lot of people reading this might not even realise how big he was – bigger and cooler than the Beatles. The film’s a bit about that too.

Why Watch?

  • The stunt casting
  • Play “spot the reference” – was that Jodorowsky?
  • Some great Dylan music
  • Edward Lachman’s remarkably varied cinematography

I’m Not There – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

The Aviator

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner in The Aviator

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

19 January

Howard Hughes sets transcontinental air record, 1937

On this day in 1937 Howard Hughes set a new world record for flying across the continent of America. Flying a H-Racer with extra long wings, he made the journey from Los Angeles to Newark in 7 hours 28 minutes and 25 seconds. The plane had been commissioned by Hughes himself and was innovative in many respects, not least its insistence on all rivets and joints being set flush, which greatly increased its slipperiness through the air.

The record was one of many accolades that this man born into wealth would accrue. His father had made his money by designing a bit for oil drilling, and when Hughes inherited his money aged 19, he immediately set about doing extraordinary things with it.

This included becoming a Hollywood producer, flying and designing planes, buying and running the TWA airline, designing a bra for Jane Russell (which she never wore), designing a hospital bed for himself after a plane crash (which he never used), designing and building the world’s largest plane built from wood, the H-4 Hercules aka the Spruce Goose (which flew only once) and founding the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, now the second largest medical research foundation in the world.

The Aviator (2004, dir: Martin Scorsese)

Though he hasn’t made a really great film since Casino, with The Aviator Martin Scorsese returns to something like classic form. Yes, this means I’m down on Gangs of New York – but then most people are these days, now that the dust has settled.

The aviator in question is Howard Hughes, with Leonardo DiCaprio taking the role of the magnate/producer/oddball and proving again that Scorsese’s faith in him is well founded.

It’s a riches to something like rags story, the film following Howard from his first arrival in Hollywood as a young, handsome, stupendously rich man to the beginning of his long decline sat in the dark, in his own filth, suspicious of everyone around him.

On the way we’ve been treated to one of those love letters to old Hollywood that Scorsese loves writing – with Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale making a particularly fine Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, and Gwen Stefani doing OK as Jean Harlow, as does Jude Law as Errol Flynn (these are all pretty tough calls).

We’ve seen something of Hughes’s airplane obsession – the designing and flying of the Spruce Goose (it was made mostly of birch, in fact), the takeover of TWA, the round-the-world flight and the spectacular crash of his XF-11 into a Beverly Hills neighbourhood which ensured Hughes was in pain for the rest of his life.

We’ve also, in one of the film’s most gripping sequences, seen something of the keen brain that probably would have made Hughes rich if he hadn’t inherited wealth, as he is grilled at a Congressional hearing and turns the tables on the Senator (demonically played by Alan Alda) who is convinced Hughes’s corporation is milking money from the government and profiteering from the Second World War.

Ultimately this is a sad story, though Scorsese loads it with Hollywood glam as John Logan’s script touches down nimbly at key points from the 1920s to the 1940s. Hughes would live until 1976 and spent the last years of his life as the world’s most famous recluse. But there’s no need to go from A to Z when A to B tells us what we need to know. B, in Hughes’s case, often standing for “breasts”. Enter Jane Russell’s cleavage.

Why Watch?

  • A glossy, spectacular biopic about a fascinating character
  • The stunt casting of famous people as other famous people
  • Cinematography by Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds, World War Z)
  • Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing

    The Aviator – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

Five Films about Margaret Thatcher

Andrea Riseborough as young Margaret Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley



Margaret Thatcher, Mrs T, The Iron Lady, is dead. 31 years ago she was the most unpopular UK Prime Minister in history. Then, after winning the Falklands War she was re-elected in 1983. She was elected again in 1987 before being defenestrated by her party in 1990, a defeat she never quite came to terms with. Politically she was deeply divisive but on one point everyone is agreed – she recast British politics, and to a certain extent global politics, with her doctrine of open markets, privatisation, financial deregulation and tax cuts. Thatcher made the world we live in now. To some she was the greatest prime minister who ever lived, to others a devil in a blue dress. Here are five films either about her or in which she featured prominently.



Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley (2008, dir: Niall MacCormick)

The breakthrough for the astonishingly versatile Andrea Riseborough who plays young Margaret Thatcher, a woman determined to make it in a man’s world. The decision to show Mrs T (even before she was Mrs T, in fact) as a plucky striver – is a brilliant one. Regardless of politics we’re on Thatcher’s side as a grim cavalcade of awful chauvinists, misogynists and old duffers spend ten years knocking our heroine back as a prospective parliamentary candidate. For those who think Meryl Streep is great as Mrs T, watch Riseborough do something similarly brilliant.

The Long Walk to Finchley – at Amazon


The Iron Lady (2011, dir: Phyllida Lloyd)

The amazing Meryl Streep plays Baroness Thatcher in old age, looking back through a haze of dementia at the handbagging Mrs T in her prime. It’s a tender portrait of a human being that has little to say about Mrs Thatcher as a political beast, or of the era she lived through. Best scene: Mrs T is haranguing Alexander Haig, President Reagan’s Secretary of State, for trying to talk her out of the invasion of the Falklands. Having torn him off a strip, she jumps up and says, “Now, shall I be mother?” Bewilderment from Al Haig. “… Tea, Al, how do you like it, black or white?” Beautiful observed, and Meryl Streep’s comic timing is exquisite.

The Iron Lady – at Amazon


The Hunt for Tony Blair (2011, dir: Peter Richardson)

Stephen Mangan plays fugitive prime minister Tony Blair in a cod 1950s detective thriller from UK jokesters The Comic Strip. Dropped by all his political allies because of his increasingly unhinged behaviour and now a murderer on the run, Blair takes refuge with Baroness Thatcher (Jennifer Saunders), who now lives in Norma Desmond delusional obscurity with her manservant, Tebbit (John Sessions). Between them Sessions and Saunders manage to squeeze some of the better laughs out of a script that is as stop-go as the UK economy.

Not available at Amazon – not yet


Elizabeth (1998, dir: Shekhar Kapur)

The film is about Queen Elizabeth I of England, but Cate Blanchett plays her very much as an iron lady of four centuries later, the voice swooping low, the eyes blazing with fire, all intransigence and feminine wile (when it suits her). It says something about Margaret Thatcher that she’s become a resource, an archive reference for actresses to go to when reaching out for something tough, possibly something unholy. Imelda Staunton did something similar in 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, playing Ministry of Magic apparatchik Dolores Umbridge as at least 50 per cent Mrs T. How that would have made the former prime minister’s blood boil – being presented as a bureaucrat, I mean.

Elizabeth – at Amazon


Margaret (2009, dir: James Kent)

A “last days of Thatcher” drama starring Lindsay Duncan as the prime minister hemmed in on all sides, not quite grasping that it is the party that made her leader, not the electorate, and that those who live by the sword are expected, when the time comes, to fall on it. And it is this failure to self-immolate that Richard Cottan’s screenplay is about. Duncan presents what is probably the iciest and most furious of the many portrayals of Thatcher, but then it was widely believed, by friend and foe alike, that by 1990 the country’s first female prime minister had slightly lost the plot. Incidentally, John Sessions turns up as Cabinet minister Geoffrey Howe. He played former Conservative party leader Edward Heath in The Iron Lady and minister Norman Tebbit in The Hunt for Tony Blair.

Margaret – at Amazon



Noble mentions: Lesley Manville in The Queen (2009), Anna Massey in Pinochet in Suburbia (2006), Patricia Hodge in The Falklands Play (2002), Steve Nallon as Thatcher’s voice in the Spitting Image TV series, Angela Thorne in Anyone for Denis? (1982). Highly effective Thatchers one and all.

The Gift

Redneck Keanu Reeves in The Gift



Director Sam Raimi is an expert in genre-twisting. Back when he was making The Evil Dead he so overloaded his gore epic that it eventually became funny. With The Gift he takes on a genre even more arcane: the British whodunit. Then he does weird shit with it. First he transports the whole shebang to the Deep South to remove all traces of afternoon tea or warm beer. Then he gives us Cate Blanchett as a clairvoyant detective who can’t quite make out the identity of the murderer – well, it wouldn’t be much of film if she could, would it? And then, as a masterstroke, he takes a raft of famous faces and casts most of them against type: the normally pale-and-interesting Keanu Reeves as a redneck; Hilary Swank – who had just won an Oscar for playing a transgender teenager in Boys Don’t Cry – as the most glamorous puss in town; Greg Kinnear, best known in 2000 for playing a gay role in As Good As It Gets, he’s the red-blooded lead. And Raimi got Katie Holmes to take her clothes off in a scene recently voted “Hottest Sex Scene in  a Movie” by GQ. No one saw that coming. Otherwise it’s whodunit business as usual, with red herrings, blind avenues, bumbling policemen, epiphanies at midnight and, of course, a completely now-why-didn’t-I-see-that ending. Enjoyable as hot buttered toast.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


The Gift – at Amazon