‘Nightmare Alley’ movie review: vibrant film noir remake from Guillermo del Toro

A grifter and conman hooks up with a traveling carnival to learn some new tricks to bring to the big city in Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s vibrant, richly-detailed update of one of the darkest and most memorable of all 20th Century Fox’s classic film noirs. Though billed as a new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham‘s 1946 novel, del Toro’s film includes many elements unique to the 1947 Fox movie.

While the earlier Nightmare Alley told its story in a trim 110 minutes, this new feature is a full 150, without adding anything major to the story. Screenwriters del Toro and Kim Morgan seem to justify the extended length by replacing the earlier film’s efficient storytelling with an ambiguous narrative that obscures character motivation in an effort to create greater mystery.

The resulting film is gorgeously-shot (by Dan Laustsen), richly atmospheric, wonderfully-performed by a talented cast – and a largely unsatisfying adaptation of one of the great American novels of the 20th century.

In del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, Bradley Cooper stars as drifter Stanton Carlise, who hooks up with a carnival to learn some of the tools of the trade. This version of Carlisle has a mystery backstory: in the movie’s opening scene, he drags a body into a pit beneath the floorboards in a house and sets the place on fire.

“What’s all that about?” we wonder. Like most of the between-the-lines stuff in Nightmare Alley, we assume the filmmakers will let us know later, when relevant to the story. Instead, the mystery comes out in dribs and drabs before revealing itself in full two hours later to no real effect. The movie has implied some great backstory for this character, teased us to infer things about him along the way, and the only real effect is that we feel jerked around in the process.

During the first half of Nightmare Alley, Cooper’s Carlisle learns the carny ropes from barker Clem (Willem Dafoe), falls in love with “electric girl” Molly (Rooney Mara), bumps up against her protectors Bruno the Strongman (Ron Perlman) and Major Mosquito (Mark Povinelli), and learns the psychic tools of the trade from mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn).

Regardless of story deficiencies, the first half of del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a transportative journey to a 1940s carnival with incredibly vibrant set and production design and a surplus of enigmatic performances. Whatever issues one might take with the storytelling, the authentic trip to the carnival that Nightmare Alley delivers is worth the price of admission alone.

But the storytelling issues have greater impact during the second half of the film, when Carlisle and Molly leave the circus for the big city and Stanton becomes a phony psychic, peddling his craft to the upper class for bigger bucks. Here, he hooks up with psychologist Lillith (Cate Blanchett) to dig up dirt on a rich tycoon (Richard Jenkins) and sell him back his life story.

Despite a commanding performance by Blanchett, the Lillith character is a particular casualty of this version of Nightmare Alley. Like Stanton, her backstory and motivations are disingenuously obscured from the audience in an attempt to create mystery; unlike Stanton, we never get a real handle on her.

Nightmare Alley tops the earlier movie in one regard: the pitch-black ending, straight from the novel, which had been altered by Fox in an attempt to make it more palatable. Cooper hits the perfect notes with his final lines and really brings the character full circle, the movie having finally revealed his story in full.

The ending of the 1947 movie, though softened and censored, remained infamous for where it leaves the Carlisle character. But in this new Nightmare Alley, where we see a carnival geek bite the head off a chicken in full gory detail in the first five minutes of the film, the restoration of Gresham’s original ending may not have quite the same power.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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