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Guillermo del Toro's 'Nightmare Alley' remake is beautifully told

 Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley (2021).
Kerry Hayes
20th Century Studios
Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley (2021).

The new film Nightmare Alley tells a story of a cheap grifter who gets too big for his britches. The film is a remake, but KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film at CU-Denver, says this old story is told beautifully.

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro was raised on the American studio movies of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and he knows the genius that lives inside many of those films. With his new remake of Nightmare Alley, he’s taken on one of the most disturbing film noirs and found its unsettling guts.

The original Nightmare Alley, directed by Edmund Goulding in 1947, opens in a seedy carnival with garish acts that line a midway. In the black-and-white cinematography of Lee Garmes, that midway at night extends deep into the back of the picture and shimmers with suggestion that this world is full of not-quite-named disturbances and frauds. Zeena the mind-reader has worked out an elaborate con, and a figure down in a cage, called the Geek, horrifies the naive customers greedy for the sensation of being shocked and feeling superior to the being that scurries around down there.

Del Toro’s remake comes in unhappy color that feels dirty and rotted. The story is profoundly American — a story we’ve been telling ourselves about ourselves for centuries already. It’s about profound corruption, dishonesty, betrayal, exploitation, greed and unbridled ambition. The kind of ambition that eats itself alive. It’s the story of a flim-flam man who uses fake magic, fake altruism and fake religion to fool the people who don’t bother to notice their own desire to be fooled.

The picture starts with Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) looking for any job he can get at the carnival. The time is late in the Great Depression. He’s desperate. But he shows quick talent for the game with Zeena (Toni Collette).

Like Elmer Gantry or even the Music Man, Stan is eventually too fast for his own game. He gets hold of Zeena’s prized code book — it’s a book of words and phrases that the aged assistant Pete has used to cue Zeena on how to read the customers’ minds in their con game. With the codes in his possession, Stan goes into the big time, with a night club act and a wife he plucked out of the old carnival (Rooney Mara), who may be less dishonest than Stan thinks.

Nightmare Alley drills right into the story of the self-made man who’s not at all self-made, who grows himself some kind of empire with smoke and mirrors and salesman-like bravado, and pushes his snake oil until the world sees through it. He’s like Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, but without the naivete. Underneath his tuxedo and his smile, Stan really is rotten to the core.

Director Guillermo del Toro takes his time — this is a 2.5-hour film — but the slow peeling away of layers of false glitz makes a delicious watch. Del Toro loves his surfaces, from the grime of the Depression-era carnival to the polished marble and crisp dark design of the woman who may or may not do him in (Cate Blanchett). And Stan’s edifice must fall, as he goes beyond even his remarkable powers to deceive.

Nightmare Alley has an exceptional cast and a look that draws you in. But most of all, the film confronts us with our own perverse need to be fooled by fast-talking charlatans.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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