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

Nightmare Alley

Zeena and Stanton in a carnival truck

1947’s Nightmare Alley is lavish, melodramatic, contains a hint of the supernatural and is a touch too long – you can see why Guillermo Del Toro wanted to remake it. It’s also a great role for a matinee idol trying to shrug off a pretty-boy tag (Tyrone Power even more so than Bradley Cooper in the remake).

In a tale about a carnival worker tasting the heights and then plunging into the depths, Jules Furthman’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s best-seller plays the hubris card early on, in a little speech in which carnie Stanton Carlisle (Power) explains himself. “You see those yokels out there,” he says to mindreader Zeena (Joan Blondell), laying out what it means to him to be a carnie. “It gives you sort of a superior feeling… as if you were in the know and they were on the outside looking in.”

By the end, Stanton has ridden to the top, also as a mentalist, having stolen big-hearted Zeena’s act, then married naive bimbo Molly (Coleen Gray) and finally met his match in tough-as-nails femme fatale Dr Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker). And he’s touched bottom, in outro scenes where he’s now back in the carnival “starring” as The Geek, a half-man, half-beast who’s kept alive on hooch and biscuits. How the mighty have fallen. “How can a guy get so low?” one carnie asks the carnival owner. “He reached too high,” is the answer.

Furthman clearly wants us to see Stanton as an Icarus “reaching too high” and being scorched by success. But in fact Stanton’s trajectory is much more obviously exactly what you’d expect from a Hollywood story of the era about a heel straightforwardly getting his just deserts. “The sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime,” as the studio code (the Hays Code) put it.

Dr Ritter and Stanton
The doctor and the huckster

You can see why Power wanted to do Nightmare Alley. As a character, Power’s fine matinee looks to one side, Stanton is a man with few positives, a schemer and charmer ascending the slippery pole mainly by deceiving women. This was his favourite film and he puts on a fine, intense performance that’s a world away from the swashbuckling roles that made his name. It allowed him to act rather than just stand about in postures vaguely reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks.

Having Power in the role is probably why the film is longer than your average noir – this film has a budget, too, and is beautifully shot by DP Lee Garmes, whose bizarre focusing decisions early on (the back of Molly’s head rather than Stanton’s face – that’s just wrong) cannot detract from the fact that this is a gorgeous looking film. The cast is good too – Blondell, Gray and Walker standouts as the three very different women in Stanton’s life might fit neatly into the Freudian id/ego/superego paradigm, and the fact that Walker is playing a shrink (a carnival huckster in finer threads, the film suggests) lends the idea some weight. Hollywood screenwriters at the time were obsessed with psychoanalyis.

Edmund Goulding directs with invisible pazzazz, upping the rhythm of the actors’ line delivery and the movements of his camera as the drama wends towards its pitiless climax. Music is notably absent up front and Cyril Mockridge only starts to add punctuating melodramatic stabs as matters come to a head, particularly as Stanton over-reaches himself and unwittingly engineers his own downfall.

By the end, there is an echo of the finale of Tod Browning’s Freaks as Stanton gets his comeuppance at the hands of the carnival crowd, having taken a swig of gin ten minutes before the end and then – in fine melodramatic style – become almost instantly an alcoholic who can’t find the bottom of a bottle fast enough.

The original ending was bleak as hell, and so studio boss Darryl F Zanuck tacked on that happyish end, which is easily ignored. It didn’t fool the public, which wasn’t ready to see the swaggering star of many an adventure on the high seas dressed in a T shirt (an early sighting) and behaving like an utter bastard. Nightmare Alley bombed. Not so Del Toro’s remake.

Nightmare Alley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2022