I’ve been a big fan of the original “Nightmare Alley” from 1947 since I was a kid. The denouncement of that film is one of the great gut punches in movies. The lead character in that film is a charming heel, but he never seemed outright evil, rather just an opportunist. The Guillermo del Toro version makes Stanton Carlisle a much more malevolent figure and that makes the remakes payoff feel even more potent. The 47 version danced around the edge of crime but was not really a murder mystery. This updated version makes death a key component for all the characters, not just the pitiful mentalist who disappears pretty early in the story.
The film is a slow burn that picks up speed rapidly in the last act. The set up of Carlisle and his assistant Molly is nice and completely believable. I like the fact that Molly takes things slowly and recognizes the dangers that Stanton is taking as he moves his mentalist act into “spook show” territory. The film may not resonate as much with contemporary audiences because the nature of technology and the media have rendered us cynical about all sorts of things, and we might wonder how anyone could be taken in by Carlisle’s tricks. Although it seems that it is still true that Nigerian Princes requesting money still seem to get a response somewhere on the internet. The main reason I think this sort of thing can continue is that we are all like Stanton, we figure we are smarter than the other guy so no one can fool us.
The two stories remain faithful up to a point, and then there is a break. I have not read the original novel so it is not clear to me if this is del Toro’s addition or inclusion, but the character of Ezra Grindle played by Richard Jenkins is startlingly ominous, backed as he is by the thug-like but devoted presence of Holt McCallany as his strong right hand. This is not just a mark for the long con, but a potential land mine of a personality that could easily destroy the things Stanton and Molly have accomplished. Cate Blanchett is the seductive and treacherous psychologist who is both manipulated by and manipulating Stanton Carlisle. Her character presents another perspective on the need to be the smartest person in every room, and that motivation conflicts with Carlisle pretty effectively. It was not quite clear to me how she managed to create a chink in Stanton’s armor, but there is a reason that the mentalist should not be drinking.
The best thing this film has going for it is the production design. I may bot have been a big fan of “The Shape of Water“, but I can’t deny that it was an amazing looking movie. The carnival that is at the center of the opening act is almost as creepy as Willem Dafoe’s character. The wagons and tents and the advertising flys all reek of authenticity and aging utility. The nightclub that Stanton and Molly appear in, is the epitome of the art deco entertainment venues that make me wish I could have lived in that era. Dr. Ritter’s office has the wood inlay walls that scream power and success and there are little pieces of art, furniture and simple background that will draw you in like a magnet. There is a momentary shot of the Spidergirl attraction, and I like the fact that I was personally involved in building a few of those for carnivals and circus use back in the 1970s.
The film is also populated with some great actors who are doing the kind of work that we expect of them. Toni Collette is sexy but diffident as she ages, David Strathairn is terrific as the pickled former mentalist with the secret Stanton longs for and the wisdom that Carlisle ignores. Roony Mara is earnest as heck as Molly. Mary Steenburgen has two scenes, the first is sympathetic desperation and the second is bone chilling mania, she was great. I would strongly recommend the film as long as you are aware that atmosphere take priority over action in the story. It will be playing in Black and White next month, I plan on going back for that version as well.