Nightmare Alley, starring Tyrone Power and directed by Edmund Goulding, was just about the darkest of film noirs when it was released in 1947. Its disturbingly cynical storyline never fails to ring the doomsday bell for noiristas, but a remake …? It didn’t seem to need one.
Guillermo del Toro thought differently. The creator of The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth decided to film William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, rather than strictly remake the old movie, but the germ of fake midway-mentalist Stan Carlisle’s predicament remains the same. In the weary last days of the Great Depression, in a small town in the middle of nowhere, drifter Stan (Bradley Cooper), on the run from a murder, casually joins a traveling carnival as a roustabout day laborer. But his natural talent for predatory hustling spurs him to a higher level of carny knowledge.
As set up in del Toro and Kim Morgan’s screenplay, the carnival is a catchall destination for archetypal misfits. Bossman Clem (Willem Dafoe) keeps his collection of dead anomalies in glass jars, grotesqueries to shock the squares. Fortune teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her unreliable alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) are walking encyclopedias of trickery; Pete even keeps a book of routines to help carnies like Stan—in his new job—“see into” the minds of gullible customers. Stan becomes quite interested in dark-eyed beauty Molly (Rooney Mara), who does an “electric chair” thrill act while not under the protection of Bruno the strong man (Ron Perlman).
Everyone in the troupe, however, is repelled by the geek; a filthy, frenzied character—“Is he man or beast?”—who bites the heads off chickens. Stan soaks up the rackets and dirty secrets and puts them to use.
In accordance with the noir lexicon it’s a given that Stan will fall, and fall hard. How and why that might happen is largely up to a psychologist Stan meets after he has maneuvered his act into nightclubs to play to a richer class of chumps. Well-heeled Dr. Lilith Ritter—Cate Blanchett in her patented vulpine mode, all sharp chin and cheekbones—and eager con-man Stan seem made for each other. With his gift of gab and her sucker list, money should roll right in.
The scenario, considered uncommonly sleazy in 1947, seems to fit appropriately into 2021 as a tale of human frailty and guilty miscalculations. Nightmare Alley is its very own resplendent carnival of human failings, one of del Toro’s most accomplished fantasies and one of the best films of the year.