By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 12/17/21 – Opening in selected theaters this weekend is Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, a remake of Edmund Goulding’s searing 1947 film noir which was based on the 1946 “true crime” novel by William Lindsay Gresham. The original novel is a study of the lowest depths of showbiz and its sleazy inhabitants – the dark, shadowy world of a second-rate carnival filled with hustlers, scheming grifters, and Machiavellian femmes fatales. Nightmare Alley might have seemed like a good fit for the Guillermo del Toro who made Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001) – films in which he shows a knack for humanism laced with a casual ruthlessness, and a concern with how trickery and illusion both reflected and intensified longing – interests that are pertinent to the story of Nightmare Alley. Del Toro was always drawn to the platitudes of Catholic parables but over time, his films have become obsessed with formalism and increasingly self-indulgent with a focus on elaborate sets and mechanical imagery. The Shape of Water (2017) won an Oscar but it too is a fossilized tribute to American film noir.
An early stylistic flourish in Del Toro’s remake of Goulding’s film broadcasts one of its significant and characteristic disappointments. For about 10 minutes, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) doesn’t speak, as he evades a tortured past and ingratiates himself with a seedy traveling carnival in the 1940s. This is a suitable entrance for a protagonist, building the audience’s anticipation for the emergence of his personality, that also establishes a pattern of passivity. The Stanton of the Goulding film, played by a brutally unsentimental Tyrone Power, entered the frames fully formed and eager, ready to learn the ropes of the carnival’s telepathy show and willing to jump in the pants of whomever enabled his ascension of the showbiz ladder. By contrast, Cooper’s Stanton is less certain and less sinister. Things just sort of happen to him.
Women, such as the clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette), seem to adopt Stanton, and when he abandons them, it’s all well and good. The romantic triangle between Zeena, Stanton, and a younger performer, Molly (Rooney Mara), has been significantly softened for this Nightmare Alley. Throughout the film, del Toro and co-screenwriter Kim Morgan continue to sand down any potential sexual, political edge that the material promises. Even the narcotic pleasure that Power’s Stanton took in grifting others is almost entirely scrubbed away here. And the carnival scene drags on for an entire hour before shifting to a later chapter where Stan and Molly set themselves up in nightclub venues in a big city (Buffalo, New York).
Stanton eventually learns from Zeena a code that allows him to feign telepathy and he and Molly become a star attraction in the city, trading the sharks of the carnival for more moneyed wolves. At this point, del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, like the original film, transitions from a picaresque into a full-blown noir, as Stanton circles Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist who immediately sees through his act, in which he describes objects, while blindfolded, that Molly holds up to him from among the audience. Lilith records the confessions of her rich patients in secret, and is willing to conspire with Stanton to fleece them, thus devolving his profession into direct, literal con artistry. Of course, Lilith is revealed to be more ingenious, powerful, and cold-blooded than Stanton himself.
That’s the idea anyway, though this Stanton has never seemed all that cold-blooded to begin with and Lilith is so over the top that your guard may well be up the instant she enters the frame. The Lilith of Goulding’s film gradually took over the narrative – a sleek, subtly masculinized dark angel hiding in plain sight. Blanchett’s Lilith, though, is the second coming of Gene Tierney and Veronica Lake, with a dash of embittered self-sufficiency. Blanchett, dressed to the nines, is commanding, with a menacingly, erotically urbane voice that seems to emanate less from her trim body than from the walls surrounding her. In corporeal form, her Lilith is the intersection of sex and money that so obsesses America, and Blanchett transcends the retro obviousness of the role through sheer force of will. She also manages to perk Cooper up and so saves the film from drowning in banality as a moral tale.
Viewers unacquainted with William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel may find the criminal conspiracy that drives the final third of Nightmare Alley both random and cheesy, with no real through line, while fans of the original film will be able to diagnose the problem: that del Toro is afraid of the through line. In Goulding’s film as in the original novel, Stanton wants to con enough money to finance a church, which he sees as the highest station of his flim-flam routine. Which is to say that the original drew a pitiless line of equivocation between carny acts and mentalist shows, psychology, and religion, implying that all are forms of telling us what we want to hear, differing primarily in terms of prestige. Stanton tempts the fates, and perhaps God strikes back.
But this Nightmare Alley is just a story of a woman screwing a man over out of boredom, a pastiche of a pastiche of a pastiche, with a few unconvincing acts of violence for spice. In their screenplay, Del Toro and Kim Morgan substitute the blasphemy angle of Stanton trying to set up his own church with a new fixation on alcoholism. Both films suggest that Stanton is destined to become the “geek,” and in this case it’s because teetotal Stanton is preordained to succumb to his family disease. This conceit is potentially resonant, particularly given Cooper’s own struggles and the issue of alcohol addiction. This does a huge disservice to the point of Gresham’s novel and allows Del Toro to completely misinterpret the historical context for vintage noir in the 1940s.
Del Toro’s lurid, often grotesque, vision of the past is quite alluring, with much credit owed to Tamara Deverell’s extravagant and intricate production design. But the more compelling the film becomes aesthetically, the more disappointing is the script. What a tight, murky little thriller becomes bloated Oscar bait, with a self-indulgent running time of 140 minutes.