Film Reviews

Nightmare Alley

Published January 21, 2022
Stan admires Dr. Ritter's fabulous Art Deco interiors

Nightmare Alley reads like it was written for Guillermo del Toro. A pulp novel with literary pretentions, William Lindsay Gresham’s masterpiece was acclaimed and denounced when it appeared in 1946. The language was obscene, the sexual content too brazen, the picture of human nature it painted, too bleak and brutal. The book was intermittently banned, and would exist only in a censored edition for three decades. In 2010, it was republished by New York Review of Books Editions as a modern classic.

The novel was first adapted for the screen in 1947, in a movie directed by Edmund Goulding, with Tyrone Power in the lead role. Despite the notoreity of the book the film flopped at the box office, but is now one of the most admired examples of 1940s film noir.

The author, William Lindsay Gresham (1909-1962) is worth a movie in his own right. Veteran of the Spanish Civil War, biographer of Harry Houdini, Gresham threw himself into one obsessive pursuit after another, from Marxism to psychoanalysis, Christianity to Zen Buddhism. He was a philanderer and an alcoholic, whose second wife, Joy Davidman, left him for the British writer, C.S.Lewis, a relationship explored in the movie, Shadowlands (1985). Joy is the dedicatee of Nightmare Alley.

By the time of his suicide in 1962, Gresham had begun to identify with Stan Carlisle, whose rags to riches to rags saga is charted in Nightmare Alley. Reading the book it’s easy to find the author himself in the detailed descriptions of the travelling carnival, stage magicians, con artists, spiritualism and psychoanalysis. These were all worlds Gresham had explored, his imagination lingering in the weirdest corners.

Del Toro and his wife, Kim Morgan, have drawn on both the book and the Goulding movie in this new adapation, although their script differs in many significant ways. This is partly because of the need to condense the action of a long, complex novel. It’s also because the contemporary cinema is far more permissive than Hollywood of the 1940s, in which filmmakers spent much of their time working out ingenious ways of getting around the Hays Code.

The new film begins with a dramatic and completely novel invention, as we watch Stan, played by Bradley Cooper,  disposing of a body and setting a house on fire. It’s a shorthand way of telling us Stan is a disturbed personality with a dark secret. Setting off on a bus journey into nowhere, he stumbles upon a town where a travelling carnival has pitched its tents.

Stan follows a crowd to peer at the Geek, a wildman who bites the heads off chickens – and recurring motif in this tale. It’s sordid, dark and dirty, but Stan feels drawn to the Carny, and is offered a job by the boss, Clem Hoatley (a sleazy Willem Dafoe). Soon he will become part of the team, alongside strongman Bruno (Ron Pearlman) and the midget known as the Major (Mark Povinelli). His main connection though, is with the mentalist, Zeena (Toni Collette), a faded blonde vaudevillian who engages Stan as her assistant in the mind-reading act, and a sexual substitute for her drunken husband, Pete (David Strathairn).

It’s the skills Stan picks up from Zeena and Pete that convince him he has a knack for fooling people. After he manages to bamboozle a hostile sheriff, he feels it’s time to head off on his own, or rather in the company of fresh-faced Molly (Rooney Mara) who plays the role of a human electrical conductor on stage.

When next we meet Stan and Molly, it’s two years later, and he is a successful mentalist, clad in a tuxedo, performing at five star hotels. One night, a woman in the audience tries to get the better of Stan, but he is able to turn the tables. This is Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychoanalyst, destined to become his hidden partner in lust and crime.

While Molly stays in the hotel ringing up the old gang from the Carny, Stan is soon conspiring with Lilith to extract cash from wealthy patients who may be susceptible to his freshly-minted ability to commune with the spirits. The biggest mark of all is Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a billionaire industrialist with a skeleton in his closet. The connection with Grindle will raise Stan’s hopes, and bring them crashing down. The last chapter of the story is one of hubris and bitter irony, as Stan feels the full weight of his thwarted ambitions.

I’ll divulge no further details of a plot that plays out in markedly different ways across three versions of this story. The moral remains intact: those who embrace the devil’s ways will pay a fearsome price. This would have been acceptable to the censors of the 1940s, who insisted evildoers must not be portrayed sympathetically, or as winners. But a bad guy, like Stan, could still be a fascinating character – explained in multiple ways, but always with a heavy helping of psychoanalysis. The key to Stan’s psyche lies in his childhood, but that childhood is portrayed differently in each version of the story!

Del Toro is at his best in the creation of atmosphere, and his Carny is a wonderland of lurid, gimcrack spectacles and dingy tents. It’s a twilight world, a gothic fantasy that never sees daylight. One moment we are within a tent, where everything is red and orange; next we are out front of Zeena’s cabin, in a scene tinged a pale, metallic blue. One new addition to the Carny is a collection of monstrous fetuses in bottles, including a baby cyclops that killed its mother while striving to be born.

Del Toro has assembled an excellent cast but hardly anybody is suited to the role he or she plays. Bradley Cooper, for instance, is too old to play the young Stan, and lacks the diabolic edge Tyrone Power brought to the role. Rooney Mara is too sharp to pass muster as the naive, good-natured Molly; and Cate Blanchett’s Dr. Ritter is an out-and-out vamp, without any mask of respectability.

As for the story, some parts acquire a new finesse and subtlety, while others dissolve into caricature. At no stage does the drama resolve these contradictions. The condensed storylines feel rushed and poorly conceived.

Could I say this if I hadn’t read the book and watched the earlier version? Maybe not to the same extent, but it’s clear that’s Stan’s later career is portrayed in an unbalanced manner. This may be because del Toro spends too long at the fair indulging his visual fixations while allowing important characters such as Zeena and Molly to remain woefully underdeveloped.

Stan’s rise to the heights in showbiz and spiritualism is so hasty, so inadequately explained, it’s as if a chapter has been omitted from the story. We watch his rise and fall with indifference, as if he were a mere puppet of fate. Blanchett’s Dr. Ritter is such a cartoon femme fatale it’s hard to believe she might inspire trust in Stan or any of her patients. Apparently he just can’t help himself, whispering to her: “You’re no good… but neither am I.”

The most mystifying part of this remake is that Del Toro has added 40 minutes to the 1947 version, but manages to say a whole lot less, sacrificing clarity for confusion. It’s a reminder that cinema may be a visual medium but it gains a large part of its power from the director’s ability to tell a story, not simply rely on the marvels of sets, lighting and cinematography. This new Nightmare Alley is never less than watchable, but it turns the darkest of human dramas into a hollow spectacle.




Nightmare Alley

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Written by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan, after a novel by William Lindsay Gresham

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Toni Collette, Ron Perlman, Mark Povinelli, David Strathairn, Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany

USA/Mexico, rated MA 15+, 150 mins



Published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 January, 2022