“Step right up and behold one of the unexplained mysteries of the universe! Is he a man or beast?”
For those of you who have seen 1947’s Nightmare Alley starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, you know that you’re in for a treat. Guillermo del Toro, the mind behind films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, is now behind the newest remake of this classic. Well, it may not be a “remake,” according to del Toro’s use of the term, but a new rendition of the film, nonetheless.
Stan Carlisle is our main character played by Bradley Cooper. It’s rumored that Cooper had to replace Leonardo DiCaprio who was originally signed on for the role, but I believe that Cooper does a great job. Carlisle enters as a man that leaves his past far behind him—literally in flames. He stumbles upon a traveling circus as a man calls out to the crowd “step right up! Step right up!” Carlisle is driven to Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), the man in charge. In time, Stan begins working at the circus alongside a Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn). They’re most known for their telepathy act, which Stan takes to quickly. He learns their code, but not everything as they keep some things close to the chest. After a tragic accident, Stan leaves the circus, taking what telepathy skills he’s learned, along with his new love interest Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) as his new partner. Stan creates a telepathy act, only for it to consume him as his lust for money and power over people becomes too much for him to handle.
The biggest argument about Nightmare Alley is that it can often be a little slow in some places, and I would have to agree. However, the original was the exact same way. I can’t say that I’ve read the original source material by William Lindsay Gresham, but it tends to be a bit of a slow burn. This newest version picks up in the second half, more so than in the original, and makes it all the more enticing. Once Stan meets a Miss Lilith Ritter, played by the masterful Cate Blanchett, the film takes a firm grip around you and doesn’t let go. Lilith throws a complete bomb into Stan’s life. She is cunning and amazingly wicked. The interactions between Blanchett and Cooper are far better than Power and Helen Walker in the 47 version.
Although the cast is outstanding—who would expect anything less from a cast of this quality—the real winners of this film are behind the camera. Del Toro’s directing is exceptional with his neo-noir look. However, he gives us this look without going for those overly-typical noir shots that every director usually goes for in a film of this caliber. But the biggest highlight for me is probably Dan Lausten’s cinematography. The film is just beautiful to look at—absolutely stunning! It’s clearly a tough choice for best cinematography between Lausten’s work here, and Bruno Delbonnel’s work on The Tragedy of Macbeth. Nightmare Alley has so much more with its work in production design, costume, and everything in between. The film looks and feels so unique.
Del Toro has created something that will truly stay with you long after we see it. I find that the longer it’s been since I’ve seen Nightmare Alley, the more I want to see it again. I will say that there are some elements in the narrative that the 1947 version did better, and some that this version did better. If the two were blended, it would be the perfect film. However, Del Toro’s take will transport you to a mysterious world full of good and evil. A film that you will feel the need to watch again and again.
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn, Ron Perlman, and Richard Jenkins