This piece was originally written for The Next Best Picture
Described as “distasteful", “harsh”, and “brutal” upon its release in 1947, Edmund Goulding’s “Nightmare Alley” was not a hit among audiences, and critics were mixed on this unconventional film noir. Now, with a new adaptation of William Lindsay Grisham’s source novel by master of the fantastic Guillermo del Toro, this hidden onyx of post-war Hollywood has re-entered the spotlight for a deserved second chance at glory.
Per Turner Classic Movie’s Eddie Muller, the impetus for the film’s production came from its star, certified dreamboat Tyrone Power. Power had found his screen success during the previous decade as an archetypical swashbuckler of period romantic dramas, a sort of unofficial successor to the likes of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. "Nightmare Alley”, Power believed, would help him develop a reputation as a serious actor with the range to take on more dramatically challenging roles.
As the alluring but crooked con-artist Stanton Carlisle, Power convincingly portrays a desperate man corrupted by the fantasy of the American dream. With his matinee idol good-looks, audiences can easily see how one could be swindled by such a charming man, only to have the rug pulled out from under them once the lights come up. Though perhaps shocking to contemporary audiences, modern viewers will be all too familiar with a man willing to destroy his own personal reputation for a chance at public success. So convinced by his own cult of personality, Carlisle’s wings eventually melt, sending him tumbling into a sea of gloom and desperation.
At Power’s side is a more than capable cast of supporting characters. The Great Stanton’s life is largely defined by his relationships with women, all of whom represent a different possibility of his life’s outcome. Joan Blondell is most remembered for her time as a staple of pre-code cinema, in roles filled with wise cracks, wit, and sex appeal (“Public Enemy”, “Footlight Parade”, “Gold Diggers of 1933”). As the years went on, Blondell often found herself in supporting, but memorable roles. As Zeena, a washed out fortune teller, Blondell conveys a character mourning a life of missed opportunity, having been given the chance at fame only to be discarded for the next best thing.
As the naive, impressionable 'electric girl’ Molly, Coleen Gray gives a convincing performance as a woman unaware of her own agency and power, one who relies on those around her to determine the outcome of her life. This provides one of the more questionable casting choices for the 2021 version. Given Rooney Mara’s past history playing dynamic, versatile, and cryptic characters, she may find herself underused in this role as a girl lost in this world of trickery and deception.
On the other hand, the decision to cast Cate Blanchett as psychiatrist Lilith Ritter could not have been more obvious. Sultry, cunning, and with a signature deep voice, actress Helen Walker easily reminds modern audiences of the hypnotic Blanchett. As a character who never shows her cards, Walker is effectively one step ahead of the other characters and the audience, who are unable to look away from her manipulative grasp.
Director Edmund Goulding may not be remembered as one of the all time greats, but his career of over forty years easily demonstrates an undeniable capability of storytelling and visual artistry. One of greatest achievements as director is that of the Best Picture winning “Grand Hotel”, a criminally underrated gem of pre-code Hollywood so sophisticated in its composition it remains a timely character study almost ninety years after the fact. In “Nightmare Alley”, Goulding demonstrates his ability to elicit genuine, believable performances from a talented ensemble, and shows his steady hand at producing effectively chilling imagery.
Cinematographer Lee Games won an Oscar for his craft for “Shanghai Express” (1932), and is greatly remembered for shooting other notable pre-code titles such as “Morocco” and “Scarface”. “Nightmare Alley”’s look is evidently inspired by that of German Expressionist film from the early 1920’s to the 1930’s. Inspired by the horrors of World War I, German filmmakers of this era used the nation’s collective trauma to produce stories of depravity and corruption, with titles ranging from the carnival-set “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and earlier serial killer drama “M”. Through looming shadows and gravity defying structures teetering on the edge of collapse, these films’ production design externalized a character’s internal moral dilemmas, presenting a world just as chaotic as one’s own mind. With the importation European directors fleeing persecution during the 1930’s and America’s own face-to-face encounter with devastation and violence during World War II, this distinct style began to creep into American cinemas in the mid-1940’s. Film Noir (previously a genre of hard-boiled private investigators, femme fatales who are inevitably given their comeuppance, and classic MacGuffin driven plots) began to turn darker, less a matter of good and evil and increasingly one of the psychological, the undefinable, the strange. Our leading men were no longer heroes with a chip on their shoulders, but ambiguous characters with ulterior motives hitherto unseen by American audiences (“Double Indemnity”, “The Lost Weekend”, “Crossfire”, “All the King’s Men”, “Ace in the Hole”)
Among its contemporaries, “Nightmare Alley” seems to have been one of the most willing to leave its audiences with a feeling of repulsion. Every trick, every act, is revealed plainly, shown for its ugly truth. The audience, including Stan, is instead tricked where we least expect it, not under a big circus tent but in a shiny, gleaming skyscraper. With no reservations about airing its dirty laundry, "Nightmare Alley” pulls back its red velvet curtain to reveal a world which we’d rather not see, but from which we cannot look away.