A phantasmagorical cautionary tale on the cruel predictability of the human condition that’s told through a beautifully orchestrated symphony of exploitation, deception, and just desserts, wrapped in a delicious neo-noir film. In the second big screen adaptation on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, del Toro certainly applies his particular cinema stylo to Nightmare Alley, yet delivers a motion picture that stays true to its roots in film noir. Gresham’s book and Edmund Goulding’s critically acclaimed 1947 adaptation are the perfect source material for del Toro’s penchant for dark fantasies. But what this film allows for del Toro to do, that he hasn’t done before, is direct a neo-noir, complete with all the tropes and stylistic conventions. And he’s recently announced that there is a grayscale version of the film, which I will want to check out soon. Del Toro’s update to the dark dale explores characters that are impacted by vicious business practices built around exploitation and deception. Audiences will simultaneously find the story and performances, by the lead and supporting cast, both alluring and repulsive.
In 1940s New York, down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) endears himself to a clairvoyant and her mentalist husband at a traveling carnival. Using newly acquired knowledge, Carlisle crafts a golden ticket to success by swindling the elite and wealthy. Hoping for a big score, he soon hatches a scheme to con a dangerous tycoon with help from the mysterious psychiatrist Lilith (Cate Blanchette) who might be his most formidable opponent yet.
Much like we witness sleight of hand in the carnival acts managed by Willem DaFoe’s carnival barker character, del Toro himself is a master magician. Teaching film history as part of my cinema studies classes reminds me every semester of how the world thought of film as the work of a magician, and I love just how many layers of magic we have within this marvelous motion picture. Just as various characters are playing on the predictability and fears of the audiences within the film, del Toro is toying around with our perceptions of what is really going on. The art of misdirection and illusion is alive and well in Nightmare Alley. Unlike most of del Toro’s previous films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, there is neither a monster, in the conventional sense, nor mystical or supernatural dimension in this film other than the magic and mentalism of the metaphoric monsters in the film.
Taking place in the early 20th century at the time when carnival sideshows, with their seemingly endless variety of oddities (still a fun attraction at modern day fairs and carnivals), dotted the rural landscapes, this film is populated with characters that have in one way or another experienced some form of trauma that has prompted them to find solace or absolution in their (exploitive) work as a sideshow performer. And our central character of Stanton (Bradley Cooper) is of no exception. Following the dumping of a dead body and setting a house in an idyllic setting ablaze, Stanton joins a seedy carnival. Although we are never given explicit details as to why he did what he did, it works perfectly because we don’t always need to know what a character’s motivation is. This unknown makes them more terrifying and unpredictable.
From what I have read, there are a few changes from the book that del Toro made in this adaptation, and for all the better! One of these changes is not spending too much time on Stan’s backstory. We learn and see just enough to keep his history ominous–he keeps this film lean. Far too often, nowadays, writers and directors feel compelled to psychoanalyze and delve into all the reasons for immoral or unethical behavior, and somehow try to rationalize and explain. This explanation removes a significant degree of threat. All we need to know is that a trauma affected Stanton to the degree that he killed the source of the trauma in order to start a new life. And the same could be said for other characters and their respectful traumas. But for all their baggage, this ragtag group of sideshow acts forms a close-knit community.
Without getting into specifics, the story follows the character (negative) growth arc model, which is very much in line with many film noir motion pictures. Furthermore, del Toro includes the iconic femme fatale (in the form of Blanchette’s character) and a villainous mob-like boss that is not to be trifled with. Nightmare Alley embodies a cynical soul, which is often a characteristic of film noir. This cynical nature demonstrates two or more opposing forces that are opposite sides of the same coin, both equally corrupt. As Stan is refining his skill and showmanship for what would become his high society headlining mentalist act, he receives a dire warning not to do the “spook” show because it leads to a dark path, a path on which the actor starts to believe his or her own lies.
Through lead characters Stan and Lilith, we witness two strong-willed, cunning individuals that are equally master manipulators. There are few things more dangerous than a con-artist who believes their own spiel, and del Toro takes that dynamic to its inevitable conclusion. While the level of violence and gore in this film are rather subdued compared to his other work, when the gore hits, it HITS! There is one scene in particular that is reminiscent of the Pale Man scene in Pan’s Labyrinth. When you hits all the tropes necessary for a neo-noir, you can then bend the conventions a little in order to maintain your authorship of cinema. For fans of Sunset Boulevard (my pick for greatest film of all time), you will also love the rich character-driven conflict.
The film can be read as a cautionary tale on various systemic societal constructs and practices that prey on the most vulnerable. And many that ascribe to applied postmodernist worldviews, will find this resonating in the film. However, it can also be read through the lens that individuals may find themselves ripe for the picking to be a carnival’s next “geek” by intentionally making decisions that lead them to the carnival barker’s office. When you are in this weakened state, there are systems that will swallow you whole. So, I feel that it’s the opposite: a cautionary tale on what happens when we lead a humanist or nihilistic life; furthermore, this film is a fantastic metaphor on reaping what you sow. If you sow deception, eventually you will reap deception by (1) being deceived by someone or (2) maybe even deceiving YOURself by beginning to believe your own lies. The systems are a symptom of the broken world in which we live, a broken world whose source is, at the end of the day, a heart problem.
Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1