After the heartwarming optimism of Belfast, could there be a more contrary film than Nightmare Alley? This bleak, cynical tale of corrupt grifters, who spend their days trying to part the vulnerable from their worldly wealth, is a noir in the truest sense of the word, and marks the first time that Guillermo del Toro has stepped away from the supernatural or sci-fi in order to tell a story. That said, this is every bit as dark as anything he’s done before.
It is of course, a remake, originally filmed in 1947 and starring Tyrone Power. Here, the boots of the lead character, Stanton Carlisle, are convincingly filled by Bradley Cooper. When we first meet Carlisle he’s carefully eradicating all traces of something he’s done – something bad that can only be cleansed by fire – but we won’t be given more detail until much later. After a long ride on an overnight bus, Carlisle arrives on the doorstep of a seedy carnival run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), a venal charmer who thinks nothing of employing alcoholics and passing them off as ‘geeks’ – supposed ‘wild men’, who will bite the heads of live chickens for the entertainment of the carnival’s visitors.
Carlisle makes himself useful, helping to pitch tents and dispose of rubbish. He meets up with ‘Zeena’ (Toni Collette), who runs a mind-reading act alongside her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn), and, spotting an opportunity, Carlisle succumbs to Zeena’s charms, whilst filching the basics of Pete’s old routine for future use.
The carnival provides a wonderful setting, an atmospheric world where the neon-lit, tawdry wonders seem to throb with an innate sense of dread. Carlisle meets up with Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act has her being ‘electrocuted’ on a nightly basis. Carlisle transfers his affections to her, and the couple head off to the film’s second act, which takes up the story two years later. Now Carlisle and Molly are running a successful night club act, using Pete’s old blueprint, and are living the highlife. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, this is noir, so of course there has to be a femme fatal and she dutifully arrives in the shape of psychologist Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She starts to dangle the prospect of even greater riches in front of Carlisle. Will he yield to temptation?
Del Toro’s theme here is that the unscrupulous operate by exploiting the weaknesses of their victims, whether they’re doing it from the grubby confines of a canvas tent or the swish environs of an art deco apartment building. And, as ever, the wealthy are never happy to stand still, when they can see even more riches glittering enticingly, just out of reach.
Nightmare Alley is proper, grown-up filmmaking. The lengthy running-time and serious subject matter will doubtless put some punters off, and financial success will rather depend on whether any of its predicted Oscar nominations come to fruition. While this might not be the slice of cinematic perfection that is The Shape of Water, it’s nonetheless the work of a gifted director at the peak of his powers, handling a tricky subject with consummate skill, aided and abetted by the dazzling cinematography of Dan Lautsen.
Plans are afoot to release a monochrome version of this, but it’s hard to imagine how it could look any more lush than it does here, with every frame a veritable work of art.