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Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley Paints an Old Noir with Lurid, Fantastical Color

The new Nightmare Alley is wilder than the brilliant 1947 original. But director Guillermo del Toro trades its original expansive sense of human tragedy for a simple, bleak pessimism.

Still from Nightmare Alley. (Searchlight Pictures)

When I came out of a screening of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, which I watched with a total of six other depressed-looking citizens, I saw, for the first time since the pandemic began, a crowded theater lobby.

It was full of people, big herds of teen and preteen friends, and whole extended family groups all chattering excitedly — one clan of six wearing identical red Spider-Man sweatshirts — all there to see Spider-Man: No Way Home, the latest reboot, which just became the first film of the COVID era to make a billion dollars.

Well, it was heartwarming. I don’t care about Spider-Man movies anymore, having had my fill a few iterations ago, but I like to see people enthusiastically enjoy the movies. I keep hoping to have that experience of eager moviegoing again myself someday.

Nightmare Alley is another critically acclaimed commercial flop, making only 3 million dollars over its first weekend, against a 60-million-dollar budget. As with the box office bust of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, which was heralded as a masterpiece by critics, the failure of Nightmare Alley is resulting in think pieces about what’s going on with the mass audience relationship to the movies.

Are respected film auteurs such as Guillermo Del Toro no longer a big draw? Have audiences still spooked by COVID committed to watching only tentpole-movie blockbusters in theaters, willing to wait to see everything else on television? Or maybe it’s just that nobody wants to see a totally grimsville movie over the holidays? Speculate amongst yourselves!

The new version of Nightmare Alley is a well-made film, with high production value, a lurid look of neo-noir glamor, and an excellent cast including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, and Richard Jenkins. But it seems to me that the film has overbalanced into a too-fantastical representation of evil. In trying to out-gloom-and-doom the source material, the new film ends up seeming more naïve than either the still-mesmerizing, dark-souled 1946 pulp novel by William Lindsay Gresham, or the first cinematic adaptation of it, a cult favorite film noir directed by Edmund Goulding in 1947, which in spite of the heavy censorship of the time, finds ways to shock and sear the imagination.

There was plenty about the novel to censor. Novelist Gresham was a terribly tormented man, an increasingly mentally disturbed alcoholic who ultimately committed suicide in the same hotel where he wrote Nightmare Alley, his one successful book. Into it he’d poured his horror and disgust of American life.

Gresham was a communist as a young man, and solidified his always avid interest in carnivals and sideshows when he served with an ex-carny in the Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Based on the stories he was told, he concocted a novel that combined lurid pulp thrills with a kind of gritty reportage on rural, Depression-era carnivals with their shabby tents and gullible hick audiences, sideshow geeks and phony psychic acts. It was a business for typically ruthless hucksters and atypically bighearted entertainers down on their luck. Gresham saw in the lowdown carnival milieu a way to represent the society in which he lived, with all its false-front institutions up and down the social scale, as a vicious sham-world of conniving fakes preying on naïve marks.

Del Toro has indicated that he relied more on the novel than the 1947 film in his adaptation. But he pushes harder than even Gresham for brutal effects to complete a vision of a glamorously irredeemable hell world. He begins his movie already immersed in grotesque mayhem, with the apparent aftermath of a murder, featuring Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) in the dead of night, burying a body in a pit dug under the floorboards of an old house, dousing it in gasoline, torching it, and walking away into the deserted countryside with the fire roaring behind him. The hellfire imagery recurs at interludes throughout the movie, as does an intense and morbid obsession with cruelty and sin that manifests itself everywhere — in the shadowy low-key lighting, the baleful scarlet-green-yellow dominated color scheme, and the crass brutality or silky sadism of almost every character Stan meets.

In del Toro’s vision, Stan is already so alienated an anti-hero, he doesn’t speak for the first few scenes. He just falls grimly into rhythm with the harsh exploitation of carnival life as another broke wanderer who gets hired on as cheap labor. The carnival itself is presented as a perpetual night-world in which it’s always the case that something wicked this way comes. In the role of the carnival owner, del Toro features Willem Dafoe as a sociopath in a pimp mustache introducing Stan to carnival life through the grisly details of how you “make” a geek — by getting some homeless alcoholic even more hooked on opium-laced liquor, to the point that they’ll go insane without it and will do any degrading thing to get their supply.

It’s an interesting contrast to the approach of the 1947 film version, which begins with a daytime, matter-of-fact presentation of carnival life looking brightly lit, shabby, raffish, but rather cheerful. It starts with Zeena (Joan Blondell), the most earthy, honest, delightful character in the film. Dressed for her psychic act, she’s gazing out over the crowds, and focusing with clear desire on handsome young Stan (Tyrone Power), a newcomer to carnival life.

It’s rare to see in an old Hollywood film such an admiring portrayal of a frank, lusty woman, one who says jokingly of herself, “I got a heart as big as an artichoke, with a leaf for everybody.” She blames herself for her affairs with other men, claiming her husband Pete began his downward slide into alcoholism because of it, which in turn caused their fall out of the “big-time,” where they’d once done a much slicker nightclub version of their psychic act.

Zeena consistently represents the best of showbiz life — she’s humorous, tolerant, and savvy. She dedicates herself to keeping Pete going (“I owe him that much”), and during her affair with Stan tries to help him too, steering him away from his own darkest impulses. When she’s first gazing at him as he makes his way through the crowd, he’s on his way to go watch the “geek” act which fascinates him — that once-notorious sideshow act of many carnivals, featuring a supposedly feral “half-man, half-beast” who eats live chickens. The owner won’t answer his questions about where geeks are found, or how they’re made, and the grisly details emerge gradually over the course of the film.

The 1947 film ties Stan’s slow rise and fast fall to his rocky start in life — abandoned by indifferent parents, raised in an orphanage run by punitive religious types, Stan emerges a young cynic with his eye on the main chance, whose periodic good-hearted impulses get overridden by his increasingly ruthless ambition.

“I wonder why I’m like this?” he asks Zeena at one point, referring to his own inability to care deeply for others. But he’s already explained it to us, the audience — he was “made” this way by a childhood immersion in callous neglect and abuse, forced to listen to sermons on Christian love on Sunday by the same people who “beat us black-and-blue” on Saturday.

Stan’s repeated motto is, “I was made for it!” He exclaims it first about life as a jovial carnival hustler, loving the rootless life on the road, the casual camaraderie, and the feeling of being a wised-up insider as opposed to the audience full of “chumps” who believe all the ballyhoo. Then he says it again as he makes his climb up out of carnival life into the swanky nightclub world, using an upgraded version of the psychic act Zeena and Pete had once performed. And Stan says it one final time when he’s a ruined alcoholic himself, getting offered the role of the geek, a role he knows he’s going to take.

In the new film version by del Toro, Stan says instead, “I was born for it,” an essentializing statement that matches del Toro’s vision of inescapable, sin-soaked, womb-to-tomb doom. It seems to go with the casting of Bradley Cooper as well. Cooper’s sleazy, pale-eyed, untrustworthy good looks suggest a rottenness at the core, whereas Tyrone Power’s bright handsomeness and responsive, quicksilver charm makes it hard to believe he’ll come to any really terrible fate, making his final fall quite crushing.

And in this new film, Zeena has no counteractive power as a strong, honest, decent person who can acknowledge her own human frailty and try to ameliorate the harm it might do to others. Though del Toro cast Toni Colette, who could’ve done wonderful work with the Zeena character from the 1947 film, in this version her role is significantly reduced. And her sexuality is now crude and uncomplicated — she grabs Stan by the dick five minutes after meeting him. Pete’s role is also truncated, though David Strathairn represents great casting too, and he does all he can to convey the ruin of a once prominent performer.

But del Toro has much less investment in this early segment of the narrative than the 1947 version by Goulding, who lingers over it and gives it tremendous significance. Del Toro lavishes attention instead on the section dealing with Stan’s fame as “Stanton the Great,” a polished nightclub star assisted in the psychic act by his sweet-natured but cowed young wife (Rooney Mara). Del Toro particularly concentrates on the role of Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychotherapist treating the wealthy, socially prominent, neurotic elite of New York City. She and Stan join forces to fleece the rich, combining her knowledge of their secret woes and his growing reputation for uncanny “healing” ESP insights, to create a seemingly unbeatable long con. Soon a spiritualist church is being funded with Stan positioned to head it as “minister.” But even as he attains wealth and power, he grows more and more perilously enthralled by Lilith.

Blanchett is ideal for this kind of part, with her sinuous glamor and her ability to convey dangerous but fascinating complexity behind the mysterious, mask-like beauty typical of 1940s film noir femmes fatales. She seems to have skillfully matched her performance to the fantastical pitch of the film, exaggerating the slinkiness of her movements and the sinister irony of her red-lipsticked smile.

Certainly, del Toro has to get credit for a consistently gorgeous vision — some of the sets and costumes and on-location shots of buildings are so darkly beautiful, they take you right out of the movie. It’s going to be a matter of taste whether or not you like his overall formal design, seamless as it is.

For me, it’s way too much — he overshot the mark. Paradoxically, the bigger del Toro’s effects are, the less impact they have. The more stylishly he represents a world of inescapable cruelty in lavish production design and dark carnival colors, the less it seems to evoke any recognizable reality. It’s so fantastical from the start that the ordinary, shabby awfulness of life which drives people to want to escape it in the first place doesn’t register.

I like the plainness of the 1947 version, especially in the early scenes — the worn look of the tents, and the cheapness of the performer’s costumes. Out of this seediness Stan and his fellow performers conjure fake wonders from sequins, grand gestures, inventive rhetoric, and the sheer desperate desire of the audience to transcend their grinding workaday existences. The carnival performers share the rough, rundown, desolate milieu with their audiences, and also their desire to escape it, but they have a more directed showbiz goal — to get to the “big time.”

The main difference is they’ve got some rudimentary training in the craftier means of escape — they’re wised-up, they know how to fool people and make money doing it. Stan’s determination to go as far as he can as, basically, a carnival-trained con man, putting as much distance as he can between himself and the ordinary suckers, is his whole motivation. That’s why his ultimate disastrous encounter with someone who’s simply a better con artist is so annihilating. Stan can’t endure his life if he’s turned back into one of the suckers.

It’s a very Depression-era mentality, the horror of being a “chump,” and the early scenes in the 1947 Nightmare Alley have preserved a worn, dusty, Depression-era look. The 1930s were a time when more people than ever in American history were looking at the government and the capitalist system revealed as colossal scams. Popular forms like hard-boiled pulp fiction, gangster films, and what we now recognize as the early forays into film noir, were populated by jaded cynics who came up the hard way and regarded authority figures and institutional power with sneering contempt. They were often played in movies by tough working-class actors like Barbara Stanwyck and James Cagney.

Without establishing that, plain, ordinary, recognizable motivational basis before descending into noir terrors, Nightmare Alley becomes a much vaguer work, a sensational but far-fetched thriller full of scarlet evil, deadly sin, and hideous retribution. Del Toro’s Stan is no everyman, as in the 1947 film, in which he started off as a regular guy, really. He’d had a bad start in life, like so many others, but he’d seemingly been compensated with good looks and an unusually brilliant gift for conning people. That highly recognizable Stan heading down a dark path he senses might be his lot in life bears little relation to del Toro’s murdering, fire-setting Stan bringing manifest demons with him wherever he goes.

Tastes differ, though. You might really prefer hellfire Stan, and the morbid fantastical del Toro doom-world, which bears no relation to any world ever seen in ordinary life.