Here’s one kind of remake we can all approve of. It’s not like many remember the 1947 Tyrone Power film noir, so there’s no point in being offended by a reworking. Under the censors rules of the 40’s, it was unlikely that an adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel would be able to cover all the nuances of such a decidedly seedy, nihilistic story, so 2021’s cinema should, in theory, be able to do it better. And lastly, the original Edmund Goulding film seems to have been way ahead of its time, and underappreciated by all but a select few. With Guillermo del Toro at the helm, the new version of Nightmare Alley carries more of a shocking charge than it ever did before.
Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is first seen burning a body; we don’t know whose. He burns a house to the ground and sets off to make some fast money, dollar by dollar, by helping out at a sinister circus/carnival. Wowed by a mind-reading act realised by Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her father (David Strathairn), Carlisle is smart enough to want a slice of the action, but his motivation increases when he meets Molly (Rooney Mara) who makes her living having electrical current put through her body as part of a dangerous act. Carlisle and Molly go on the run together after something happens to Madame Zeena’s father, but the big city only leads them to the clutches of sinister psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett)….
Nightmare Alley is a genuine shocker, mainly because of the immoral, transgressive tone; just about everyone is working a noir angle here, and those seeking lovable characters and high-moral standards should look elsewhere. In the central role, Cooper captures a mean, dark spirit in Stan Carlisle, whose early encounter with circus-attraction-owner (Willem Dafoe) hangs over his story like a foreboding curse. Blanchett gets her vamp on perfectly, but all the performers are on point here, and del Toro knows just how to elevate this melodramatic tale into something more than a potboiler.
With a lavish, Gothic production, plus the usual del Toro grasp of nightmarish reality, there’s plenty here for mature audiences to feast on. Remaking 1940’s film noirs couldn’t be less fashionable in 2022, but Nightmare Alley revitalises the genre with a fresh take, exhuming material that’s aged rather well and fully deserves another outing to entertain a mystery-starved audience. And Cooper is the big draw here, giving a memorably powerful, compelling performance that provides an ideal centre for an off-kilter, nightmare universe of ambition, deception and greed.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY WILL BE RELEASED IN UK CINEMAS ON 21 JANUARY 2022, AND IS OUT NOW IN THE US.
Thanks to Searchlight/ 20th Century Studios for access to this film.