The 1947 drama Nightmare Alley came out during the golden age of film noir. It is the dark (both in terms of story and lighting) tale of a man whose arrogance and hubris brings him from nothing to everything and back again. It contains all the noir trademarks of the flawed hero who does the wrong thing for the right reasons, the good girl who loves him and the bad girl who brings him ever closer to ruin.
Guillermo del Toro, one of the great fantasists of modern cinema decided to remake Nightmare Alley. That is a difficult task, not because the original is some untouchable classic, but because the feel of noir is hard to replicate now. Would he turn it into a basic character study? Or a more traditional thriller? Would he downplay the plot in favor of exploring the fantastical elements of the carnival where it takes place? Or would the studio force him to lighten it up in an effort to appeal more to mass audiences? The answer to all of those questions is no.
del Toro has made a noir that feels like it could have been produced in the 1940s (minus the swearing and graphic violence). His version is even more cynical than the original, sanding off any soft edges its protagonist may have had. You can see how, if it were twisted in another direction, this story could have been a comedy about a con-man taking advantage of depressed Americans by giving them false hope. It is easy to see where the humor could have come from, yet del Toro focuses on the sadness and desperation of his characters instead. There is no hope here; film noir doesn’t allow for it.
Based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, it follows Stanton Carlisle who, as the story opens, is walking away from a burning cabin. He finds his way to a carnival where he gets work. While helping a psychic manipulate customers, he catches the eye of the sweet Molly. His ambition to leave with her leads him to try to use the psychic’s tricks for his own financial gain, which results in consequences he did not predict.
del Toro is best known for his visuals, but he doesn’t deploy that skill as expected. The carnival is creepy, with its jars of corpses and the caged geek, though it never feels supernatural. This is not a dark fairy tale. The evil lurking around this plot is very human. Unlike some of del Toro’s previous projects, his sets and characters are not wholly original creations. What makes them unique is how he and his cinematographer (Dan Laustsen, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on del Toro’s Best Picture winning The Shape of Water) bring a sense of impending doom to everything.
The colors are dark (though fire and blood are definitely not). None of the sets look like anyplace you’d want to visit. The carnival, full of promises of the grotesque, is fittingly foreboding. The fancy dining rooms Carlisle performs in later on are equally unwelcoming, like even the walls know he doesn’t belong there. The look of the movie is impressive because of how unshowy it is, though a lot of thought has obviously been put into every frame.
Also impressive are the performances by the excellent cast. Bradley Cooper is outstanding as Carlisle. Initially, he is quiet, guarded, like he is running from something and wants to be invisible. Once he is comfortable at the carnival, the excitement he shows at finding creative ways to wring more money out of their customers is contagious. Maybe, deep down, he’s actually a decent guy who just got a bad break? Then, a couple of things calls that idea into question, sending him on the path to the inevitable final act. Cooper is convincing every step of the way.
The carnival is stuffed with colorful characters. Willem Dafoe runs things as the slimy Clem, Toni Collette is the charming psychic Zeena, David Strathairn is her likable husband, Pete, and Ron Perlman is his usual gruff, intimidating self as the strongman Bruno. Rooney Mara is Mary, the innocent who falls for Carlisle. She’s fine, though the “good girl” in general is an uninteresting role. The “bad girl” is far more intriguing and that’s Cate Blanchett as psychiatrist Dr. Ritter, who presents Carlisle with an opportunity he cannot refuse, even if refusal might be in his best interest.
Nightmare Alley (141 minutes without the end credits) has the same anger and pessimism that fueled the films noir of the 1940s. Set at the beginning of World War II, it makes it clear from the outset that there is no way this man could have a happy ending, not then or there. Being faithful to the original story is less important than being faithful to its feel, which this certainly is. It is entertaining, smart, and compelling from start to finish. It is also one of the best movies of the year.
4½ out of 5
Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle
Rooney Mara as Molly Cahill
Willem Dafoe as Clem Hoatley
Toni Collette as Zeena
David Strathairn as Pete
Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter
Ron Perlman as Bruno
Mark Povinelli as The Major
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan