Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
William Lindsay Gresham is an author from Baltimore who is best known for his novel Nightmare Alley (1946), which was made into a 1947 film noir, starring Tyrone Power. Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro is the director and co-writer of this 2nd adaptation of Gresham’s novel or remake of the 1947 flick. Del Toro is known more for his monster movies or horror films. This feature doesn’t involve monsters or horror in the traditional sense, but it’s not rare for those kinds of features to incorporate noir, so it’s not surprising why del Toro would be attracted to Gresham’s material. Gresham’s novel was a typical kind of noir. If this film does have monsters, it’s the monsters that exist inside certain men’s souls. In this case, it’s the monster existing inside one man’s soul. Del Toro’s film exaggerates that monstrosity in a man’s soul by making him more murderous than he was depicted in the 1947 version.
Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born and American Sniper) stars as Stanton Carlisle or “Stan,” a drifter and a grifter living in rural America during the days of World War II who finds himself at a carnival where he gets a job as a laborer. He eventually starts to study mentalism under the carnival’s middle-aged mentalist and his partner who is a fortune teller. He does become a mentalist on his own, performing shows in the big city and developing a lot of seeming success. However, he obsesses over getting more money from a wealthy client by convincing that client he’s a real psychic medium and not just a fake mentalist.
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine and Elizabeth) co-stars as Lilith Ritter, a psychologist who works in the big city at the time that Stan arrives there. She’s in fact the doctor to a lot of wealthy clients, including the one over which Stan obsesses. She decides to help Stan grift those clients. One in particular is Ezra Grindle who is a patient who seems to have a special relationship with her. For example, Lilith accompanies Ezra to Stan’s show to evaluate him. If one knows much about film noir, she’s a classic femme fatale who exudes that energy from almost the moment she appears.
Unfortunately, del Toro’s interpretation of Lilith makes little sense. In the 1947 version, her motives were simple and clear-cut. She wanted to swindle Ezra of his money, just as much as Stan did. She also wanted to get even with Stan who basically threatened her after he learned a secret she had. Here, del Toro takes that motive away but doesn’t replace it, so she ends up coming off as a sadist. She’s established as someone who has been abused and who then abuses Stan in return, but there’s no clear explanation as to why she would take out such abuse on Stan.
The only real explanation is a thematic one, which is what goes around comes around, or the idea of karma. This film differs from the 1947 version is several ways. The first of which is the very opening. The 1947 version opens with Stan already working at the carnival. This version opens with Stan disposing of a dead body, presumably of a person that Stan killed. The 1947 version has Stan be responsible for a death at the carnival, which this film mirrors. This film goes further than the 1947 version by having Stan actively and brutally murder two more people, which the 1947 version didn’t have. If del Toro was going to make Stan more murderous and brutal, having Lilith be more sadistic probably is the appropriate counterweight.
Rooney Mara plays Molly Cahill, a woman who has her own act at the carnival. She has this “Electric Girl” act that she does. She’s charmed and seduced by Stan who becomes infatuated with her. She becomes enamored with his ideas for bigger and better things than just carnival life. When he goes to the big city to become more successful, she goes with him. It isn’t until later that she becomes disillusioned by his greed and ambition, as well as his somewhat abusive behavior. She never learns why but Stan abusing her might stem from abuse he suffered, possibly at the hands of his father. Mara’s role here is a reunion of sorts with Blanchett who co-starred with her in the lesbian drama Carol (2015).
Willem Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire and Platoon) plays Clem, the guy who appears to be running the carnival. He’s also responsible for one particular act known as the “Geek.” The Geek is a man who performs gruesome acts like biting the heads off chickens live in front of audiences. Geeks are often addicts or abused men. It seemed illegal to possess and utilize these kinds of men, but Clem does it anyway. It’s weird because Stan helps Clem with managing this geek. Stan seems to have the most sympathy for the geek, or at least more sympathy than Clem does, which is why the ending is more ironic.
This film loses the religious component that became front and center in the 1947 version. The religious component is more of an undercurrent or more subtle here. The 1947 version involved Ezra’s lover dying from a back-alley abortion. I’m not sure if that abortion is present in the novel, but having it in the film touches upon a hot-topic that has religious implications. Given the U.S. Supreme Court is currently handling abortion cases, which could have incredible consequences in this country, having that abortion issue in this film would’ve made it more topical and relevant. It also would’ve helped to underscore the religious aspects, which made the 1947 sharper than this one. Cooper’s performance though is great, particularly in the second half of the film.
Rated R for strong and bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 30 mins.