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.
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.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022