Ever since “Crimson Peak” (2015), Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro has been producing movies that were previously staples of the catalog of the Golden Age of Hollywood. In “The Shape of Water” (2017), we got a peek inside Del Toro’s vision of the creature-feature a la “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954), with tendrils of romance seeping through and binding tightly. Now, it is 2021, and he is out with a new feature, tackling one of the most recognizable genres of old Hollywood – noir.
Mild Spoilers Ahead
The question arises, though, why “Nightmare Alley?” What is so special in William Lendshey Graham’s novel and the 1947 film directed by Edmund Goulding that would attract the attention of horror aficionado Del Toro? As it turns out, “Nightmare Alley” is exactly the kind of noir that would suit Guillermo Del Toro’s penchant for exploring the human condition in his two earlier films; while simultaneously being a markedly different film, even in terms of tonality.
Having seen a fair number of noir, I can safely say that this genre is one of my favorites to explore; my vision of noir is not just its proclivity to dabble in darkness, literally and figuratively. Noir is always supposed to explore the gray edges of the characters, good and bad, which tend to get increasingly blurred. The most famous film noir, “Double Indemnity” (1944), rests on a simple premise – a rich woman wants to kill her husband to acquire double the insurance money, and an insurance agent, attracted to her, would do anything to get her in bed, even kill her husband. In such a noir, the characters don’t fit the traditional description of good and evil. The hallmark of film noir was the presence of a protagonist who is a flawed person, the femme fatale, and an increasingly sharp focus on the psychological traits of the characters to delve into their darker tendencies.
Even from that point of view, “Nightmare Alley” is a particularly nasty version of noir, the book more than the 1947 film. It’s a lurid tale of an opportunistic carnival barker named Stan Carlisle, who assists “Mademoiselle Zeena” and her alcoholic husband, Pete, in their mentalist act. Having been at the top of their game in years past, Zeena and Pete had developed a code to make their mentalism powers seem real. This code is an attractive prospect for Stanton, who tries to romance Zeena and manipulate Zeena and Pete into teaching him the mechanics of mentalism.
But one night, when Pete dies of alcohol poisoning, Zeena is forced to teach Stan the code to keep their act going. Stan, gaining confidence as a con man, romances another young carnival worker named Molly and soon leaves the carnival to perfect a 2-man mentalism act in the big city. The book, and subsequent media, follow the rise and fall of Stan Carlisle as a not-so-subtle allegorical story of Icarus.
The 1947 film was particularly notable because it showcased Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle, who is amoral, with full knowledge of his charm and looks and not afraid to use them. These characteristics of Stan Carlisle are shown throughout the movie. His scummy nature and proclivity towards manipulation earn him a kinship with psychologist Lilith Ritter, the femme fatale of this story. But it also manages to, even in limited time, showcase America as a country recovering from the Great Depression and moving into the second World War. America and its citizens needed healing and respite from the world around them, and this search for feeling good is ripe for manipulation from con-men. “Nightmare Alley,” through its hard-boiled speech patterns and well-paced runtime, manages to show the rise of psychology, the persistence of alcohol, and the presence of con-men in a country striving to get out of its suffering, even at the cost of being manipulated.
The 2021 film is not an adaptation of the 1947 film, but it does owe a debt of influence to it. Guillermo Del Toro’s vision of “Nightmare Alley” is a far more epic story in terms of scope. From filling in a backstory of Stan to the exploration of the circus and carnival life, these are moments of catnip for Del Toro as a filmmaker. The circus, with its production design and its showcasing of the monsters and the funhouse of mirrors and the “geek” – “half man-half beast” in its full bloody glory – are elements that were only implied in the original during the code era; however, Del Toro revels in showcasing of monstrosity. Like most of his movies, Del Toro luxuriating and marveling at his own designs sometimes come at the cost of character development. He develops the inherent curiosity and otherworldly nature of a circus, if not its inhabitants.
But like his two earlier pictures, the propensity of Guillermo Del Toro to show humans as the worst of the monsters in society is far more pronounced here in keeping touch with the source material. Bradley Cooper’s depiction of Stan, in the beginning, comes off as the typical mysterious hard-boiled protagonist. He doesn’t utter a word until 20 minutes into the movie; even then, the screenplay by Kim Morgan and Guillermo Del Toro manages to keep Stan’s opportunistic tendencies to a bare minimum, utilizing visual tics and facial cues.
The fascinating additions are the comprehensive explanation of the code used by Pete and Zeena, here played by David Straithairn and Toni Collete, respectively; Collete is a far more promiscuous version of Zeena’s character here, while Pete’s character remains relatively unchanged. He still delivers the warnings; he is still the Dedalus to Stan’s Icarus. Unlike the 1947 film, the Greek tragedy roots are far more pronounced here. Dedalus is heavily implied to have been killed by Icarus, even as Icarus rises and takes flight.
Guillermo Del Toro’s exploration of America leading into the war is far more pronounced after the first hour. The production design is exquisite; you can almost smell the mahogany wood through the screen when entering Ritter’s office. Ritter, played by Cate Blanchett, brings the sensuality and menace necessary to convey in the world depicted here, an opulent version of America tempting Stan to delve into his already darker and opportunistic tendencies. This America is also like a carnival – an almost steampunk invention of the polygraph, and the sensuousness of Ritter masking as psychotherapy. Cooper as Stan shines, here, in the character exploration of the protagonist, when his layers are slowly getting revealed.
It does, in the end, manage to make “Nightmare Alley” a slightly longer film than maybe what was necessary. Even as the first hour with its additions might feel like a drag, it’s the final moment where Guillermo Del Toro manages to close the cycle of the story, tying up all the elements previously explored. What Del Toro manages to showcase in the final three minutes renders almost all of the flaws of this version of “Nightmare Alley” moot. It essentially works without the shackles which had pulled its predecessor back from diving deep into the griminess of the story.
It also manages to bring an epic scale of the story, even as the visuals sometimes feel too glossy for the material it is portraying. Most importantly, there isn’t a sense of optimism here, like in Guillermo Del Toro’s previous works. Humans are monsters, the movie is bleak, and that is the wavelength this movie needed to be in to pay justice to the nastiness of the source material. In that regard, it is far more of a noir than the previous movies the contemporary noirs are supposed to pay homage to.