Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Though apparently in the bloom of youth, I am actually old enough to remember a time when Nightmare Alley was considered an obscure cult film sorely in need of wider recognition. The 1947 picture, a pet project of Tyrone Power—who brazenly de-glammed his image and was rewarded with a box-office flop—has now achieved the level of acknowledged noir (or at least “noir”) masterpiece, in no small part because of its rather modern perversity and a shockingly downbeat ending.
I am happy about the film’s rise to prominence, but I find it less than a masterpiece. The opening reels, where Power’s drifter finds work in a carnival, are swell, and the ending (despite a tacked-on note of hope) is a roundhouse punch to the gut. But the movie has too much of the dull gloss of Fox pictures from this era, especially in its second half, and the pace plods after we leave the carnival. Its earnestness reminds me of The Razor’s Edge, from a year earlier, Power’s other postwar attempt to prove himself a real actor, a project quite different in subject matter from Nightmare Alley but similarly hampered by the sheen of the Fox house style and the square approach of director Edmund Goulding.
So the idea of a remake of Nightmare Alley is not at all sacrilegious, especially as director Guillermo del Toro said (or I think he said) that his version would hew closer to the source novel by William Lindsay Gresham. It’s been a while since I read the book, but it’s a knockout, a truly unsavory crawl through a landscape of all-American grunge. Del Toro and co-screenwriter Kim Morgan haven’t veered that far from the ’47 picture, though, and have kept some ideas that were invented for that movie (scripted by the great Jules Furthman). The result is a sometimes ungainly work that relies on its physical beauty and beguiling forward motion to carry it past lapses in logic and motivation—you could say the same thing about the way its antihero, the con man Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), gets away with his mentalist routine.
The new Nightmare Alley begins with a vividly-realized mystery scene, something teased out over the course of the movie that exists, I guess, to explain something about Stan’s character. The carnival sequences follow, as Stan becomes intrigued by a mentalist act devised by a soused old carny (David Strathairn) and his libidinous wife (Toni Collette, hungrily gazing at Stan as he reclines in her bathtub); this mind-reading bit will become Stan’s ticket to bigger things when he splits the carnival with sideshow princess Molly (Rooney Mara) in tow. These carnival scenes go on a little long (and yet there’s not enough Toni Collette), even with evocative people like Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, and Mark Povenelli lending seedy luster.
But a quick TWO YEARS LATER title jumps us ahead to Stan and Molly performing their mischief in front of classed-up big-city crowds, including psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who practices her craft in an uproariously elaborate Art Deco office, and whose savvy about spotting an easy mark is far beyond Stan’s instinct for the grift—even if he does begin to suspect extrasensory talents in himself. Add a zillionaire (Richard Jenkins) in search of a conduit to the spirit world, and the main outline is in place.
Despite the film’s psychological wobbliness (I’m not clear on what Lilith’s long game is, and Stan’s willingness to lie back on her couch and reveal things about his past seems unlikely), I think it’s a good thing that del Toro has the solid structure of a novel to work with. It allows him to occupy himself with the business of dressing a shot: all the stuff of design, light, color, movement. And when it comes to that, this thing is dressed to the nines. I interviewed del Toro’s regular cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, for Film Comment in 2017 (https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/camerimage-interview-dan-laustsen/)—he does DP duties on Nightmare Alley, too—and he spoke about the director’s completeness: “The whole concept of the movie is coming from his brain and he is very much into details—set design, the wardrobe, the costumes, the makeup, the lighting, everything … the color palette comes from him on everything.”
Here, that Polanski-like attention to detail overwhelms whatever the movie is ostensibly about, so that Nightmare Alley becomes a movie about movies. In some cases this might be empty style, or just showing off—by comparison, I thought del Toro’s Crimson Peak was a collection of snazzy effects—but here the gorgeous design of each shot is its own justification. The film’s story is about the urge to believe in something that is patently an illusion—and del Toro commits all the way to that idea. (In that spirit, it could be that only Cate Blanchett is entirely on the movie’s wavelength, as her performance is a pure piece of stilted artifice. Although Bradley Cooper is very strong, especially in the movie’s wind-up, the other actors seem to waver between naturalism and high style.)
There’s an opportunity here for timely commentary about how a population can be easily bamboozled, which Nightmare Alley only hints at. But despite its shortcomings, the film offers a kind of daft high, rare in a movie world that leans toward the realistic approach. Here, every shaft of light, every special-effects snowfall, every thread of sumptuous costume design seems to be the point. One example: Stan’s pride in his teetotaling discipline is tempted when Lilith places a crystal glass of whisky on a table beside them. It’s a turning point, because his embrace of (presumably return to) alcoholism will figure in his future plummet. Del Toro lavishes a beautiful close-up on that glass, which isn’t merely well-lit but also seemingly imbued with all the Deco elegance that surrounds it. As if that weren’t enough, when Stan’s hand touches the glass, there’s a sound—the uncanny cry of fine crystal with a little rich liquid in it—that briefly fills the air. It matters, because of the storyline, and Stan’s surrender to the drink, but really, who else but a fetishist would go to the trouble of creating this kind of detail? Nobody but del Toro, these days, and—moment by moment, anyway—the style intoxicates.
December 17, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.