Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Kim Morgan & Guillermo del Toro based on William Lindsay Gresham novel
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen; Editing: Cam McLauchlin
Production Design: Tamara Deverell; Set Decorator: Shane Vieau; Costumes: Luis Sequille; Score: Nathan Johnson
Stars: Bradley Cooper (Stanton Carlisle), Cate Blanchett (Lilith Ritter), Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill), Toni Collette (Madame Zeena), Willem Dafoe (Clem Hoatley), Richard Jenkins (Ezra Grindle), David Strathairn (Pete), Ron Perlman (Bruno), Mary Steenburgen (Felicia Kimball), Mark Povinelli (Major Mosquito), Holt McCallany (Anderson), Peter MacNeill (Judge Charles Kimball), Paul Anderson (Geek #1), Clifton Collins Jr. (Funhouse Jack), Tim Blake Nelson (Carny Boss)
The TV ads hawking Nightmare Alley, assuring viewers that Guillermo del Toro’s latest release is one of the best films of the year, aren’t snowing you. It’s certainly the best film I’ve seen so far. This is a worthy follow-up to the director’s previous, Oscar-winning The Shape of Water. As such, viewers should seek it out on as big a screen as possible, so that the feverishly surreal imagery can loom up over them, overpowering one’s sensibilities. I’m worried though, that the title, suggestive of thrillers, might turn off many moviegoers around the holiday season.
In truth, it’s horrific only peripherally, the way other del Toro titles could be considered ‘monster’ movies, if one stretched the term. In line with Martin Scorsese’s musings on The Death of Cinema, I too have become increasingly disillusioned over the last decade with the seemingly endless ascension of assembly line remakes, recycles, reboots, and franchises that have come to dominate the Hollywood product, tying up small fortunes that would be better invested in developing original content and encouraging new voices. The argument always made is that movies are a commercial art that need to make money to justify the expenditure. And that it offers the market greater financial stability to bank on an established and pre-sold quantity.
But it’s doubtful in the case of Nightmare Alley, that normal considerations even qualify regarding its status as a remake. Though the 1947 version of William Lindsay Gresham’s Depression-era novel, directed by Edmond Goulding and starring Tyrone Power, is now considered a cult classic, a masterpiece of ‘40s film noir, that’s a genre with its own specialized niche, lacking in widespread appeal even for many classic movie lovers. So, it’s unlikely that the majority of today’s mainstream, millennial moviegoers will be familiar enough with it to make any pointed comparisons to del Toro’s interpretation, without going out of their way.
Which is all the better, since the director has made this story over in his own image, a ghoulish Gothic, so that it seems something entirely new and unique, with precious little debt to its earlier sources. When you have material like this, that speaks so clearly to del Toro’s unique gifts, it seems to make perfect sense to give him a crack at warming it over the second time around. And the final results fully justify the repetition. The Mexican director does remakes right. And one can feel certain that if anyone else had made it, this movie would never have turned out looking the way it does. One of the director’s most shameless excursions into pure style to date, the result is a movie truly unlike any other released this year.
Del Toro’s an auteur in full flower, and as such far too good a director not to go all the way with material like this, so primed for his personal brand of exploitation. Rather than simply remaking the original, he’s completely reimagined it, placing it in the proper context of his personal aesthetic. Meaning this Nightmare Alley is utterly transformed by his own perspective and spin on things. Mining his fount of inspiration, he’s twisted these elements into the shape and form of another misshapen, colorfully imaginative cinematic gargoyle.
So, while this adaption doesn’t attempt to compete with the earlier movie, it is, I believe, something of a classic in its own right. Del Toro’s adapted Nightmare Alley in such a way, that it’s been made over into a phantasmagoria in keeping with his standing cinematic obsessions and themes, made over until it’s become something entirely his own, with little relation to the original. The final result is such a completely different animal, it hardly seems to have emerged from the same wellsprings. One never thinks of the Tyrone Power version when watching it. Which seems ironic since the film’s chalk full of so many references to other old movies that influenced it.
Neo-noir only around the edges, Nightmare Alley feels more like a floridly melodramatic Grand Guignol, where villains cackle maniacally, while lightning flashes and thunder crashes behind them. In a word, the perfect world for del Toro to play around in. Against his baroque backdrops, the normal range of human emotions simply wouldn’t do. And the movie seamlessly veers from the gothic macabre of its early carnival setting, to the lushly pliant and dreamily soft melodrama of the final half. With both reimagined in a hyper-stylized way that recalls the lush romanticism of Hollywood’s past. In the further interest of evoking our memories of old timey movies, the director, opening his film in the Dustbowl, consciously brings together various schools from cinema history.
The movie incorporates everything from ‘20s German expressionism, to the noir genre that such expressionism went on to inspire in the ‘40s, with their similar, fatalistic themes concerning entrapped, modern man lost in the moral morass of corrupt society. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s exquisitely moody, noir lighting, even throws in evocative shafts of illumination, for heightened emotional effects. It was ill-advised and cheaply pandering to reissue this movie to theaters in flat black-and-white, to more closely adhere to classic noir stylings. The hastily repackaged prints just washed out all of Laustsen’s deep and richly colored tones.
To further ground this film in an earlier era, del Toro includes such techniques as iris-outs from silent movie days, as when Stan and Molly leave the seedy carnival in their wake. The drama itself has been scaled to match this stylized look. Floridly melodramatic and hyper-charged, sitting through the film is like being hooked up to a joy buzzer, with pleasant periodic volts electrifying our senses along the way. Much as Rooney Mara’s Molly explains, about making her body go limp from the alternating current during her ‘Elektra’ act, she always remains attuned to when she’s had enough juice and can’t take anymore. For his part, del Toro modulates the pulsating dramatic rhythms just enough, so that viewers could go on and on, without ever tiring or suffering from sensory overload. At nearly three hours, Nightmare Alley seems to whiz by without overstimulating our circuitry.
Though there’s nothing overtly supernatural about it, Nightmare Alley, like the director’s best works, still seems vastly unreal, yet vividly immediate. It’s possessed of the same rich, slightly grotesque, fairy tale quality that Tim Burton’s movies used to have. Minus his sardonic undercurrent. The trailers preceding the film in its theatrical release, are all along the lines of superhero action adventures, heavy on comic strip conception art, giving audiences a better idea as to what to expect from Nightmare Alley itself, than the psychological neo-noir it claims to be on the surface. Instead, visually, it’s a lush, fully realized throwback to the sort of graphic novels, comic books and slick movie monster magazines del Toro cut his teeth on, and which fed into his earlier films, most notably his adaptations of Blade and Hellboy. His swoony imagery just looms up over you at times, the way it occasionally does in Spielberg and Burton, the visual look of whose films also owe a strong debt to their art panel concepts.
The setting allows the director’s imagination to run rampant. Nightmare Alley is full of original artistic touches, such as memorable shots of the hippo caravan of carny folk in their rickety trucks, lurching from town-to-town. Richly visualized and imaginatively conceived, the movie’s been beautifully designed, with careful attention applied to the color palette. A gorgeous thing to look at from start to finish, it possesses the same green dominant production design Tamara Deverell and set decorator Shane Vieau brought to The Shape of Water. The dungeon-like space lab pool from that earlier film, has been replaced by the equally ornate, tumbledown fairground set with its demonic wheelhouse, equal to the greatest of del Toro’s conceptions.
The innocent Molly character stands out in the primary red costumes of Luis Sequille, as sharply as Sally Hawkins’ Elisa did in The Shape of Water, which may be why her kindred spirit’s name is so similar to Molly’s own stage moniker of ‘Elektra.’ Mara brings the same pliant, big-eyed, pursed-lipped, little girl lost quality to this role that always serves her so well. So, she never seems in competition with the more experienced actresses in the cast. Not even romantic rival Cate Blanchett’s Lilith, the two reunited here after scoring so well off one another in Todd Hayne’s Carol (back in 2015). It’s just a shame that writers del Toro and Kim Morgan have given them no scenes together to spark a similar chemistry, or satisfactorily examined their similar ‘Elektra’ complexes, which are hinted at, but never fully explored.
Del Toro’s entire canon has been comprised of movies about characters who look as if they’d feel more at home among carneys, freak shows and colorful circuses. So, Nightmare Alley seems a culmination of sorts, the embodiment of what his career has collectively been about. Despite being the first of his films that could be classed as possessing a ‘respectably’ realistic milieu, the director still chooses to gravitate toward the slightly otherworldly, underground sideshow atmosphere. He certainly seems to find it far more homey and earthy than the cold, isolated haunts of the wealthy the movie later trespasses into.
And this carny setting, that seems so second nature to del Toro, is one not often explored seriously on screen, despite discomfiting, sporadic glimpses in movies like Carny (from 1980), Sting’s Frankenstein variation The Bride (from 1985), The Howling VI: The Freaks (from 1991), R.L. Stine’s Monsterville: Cabinet of Souls, and HBO’s Carnivàle. The general concept, concerning something wicked this way coming in the form of a macabre carnival/circus blowing into town, has become an archetype. One that stretches at least as far back as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which would popularize the German expressionism del Toro so liberally borrows from.
Given the characters that populated the backgrounds of his previous films – vampires in Cronos and Blade, chameleon-like insects in Mimic, wandering spirits in The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak, a devil in the Hellboy movies, a Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, gill men in Hellboy and The Shape of Water, electric, Godzilla-like dinosaurs in Pacific Rim, along with a plethora of other creatures – all freaks and sideshow curiosities of one sort or another themselves, del Toro, as may be expected, is in his true element here, on familiar ground from the outset. And viewers can practically sense the intuitive kinship he possesses with this material. Del Toro’s not unlike director Tod Browning, who spent his youth, around the turn of the twentieth century, in just such environments.
It was a unique experience he atmospherically brought to the early screen in movies like The Unholy Three and The Mystic (in 1925), The Unknown (in 1927), West of Zanzibar (in 1928) and his talkies The Devil-Doll and Miracles for Sale (in 1939). Among many other tales set in and around carnivals or circuses, populated by magicians, confidence tricksters and phony fortune tellers. Perhaps most significantly, as a source of inspiration here, could be classed Browning’s movie from 1927, The Show, featuring matinee idol John Gilbert in his most uncharacteristic role, that of a mercenary, womanizing carnival barker. As played by Bradley Cooper, Nightmare Alley’s Stan Carlisle owes as much of a debt of inspiration to Gilbert in The Show as he does Tyrone Power’s original conception.
But, of course, it’s Browning’s great granddaddy of sideshow shockers, his masterpiece Freaks (from 1932), to which del Toro is most seeking to pay homage to with Nightmare Alley. That film contained the penultimate theme that has haunted all del Toro’s work, in which it’s the beautiful people who ultimately reveal their true, ‘monstrous’ selves, only to have fate duly mete out a punishment nearly identical to the one Stan is served up here. Populating his own milieu with contortionists, midgets, strongmen, fortune tellers, dog-faced boys, even Ron Perlman from the ‘80s cult TV hit, Beauty and the Beast, del Toro, as with Browning, likewise seeks to show mainstream society that these, ‘accidents of nature’ are just people at heart. He’s seeking to reclaim their nascent humanity by removing the public stigma.
In Nightmare Alley, when the sideshow geek (played by Paul Anderson) makes a run for it under cover of darkness, a slave escaping for freedom, he’s hunted down and cornered like an animal. While cinematographer Laustsen shoots him in a way intended to visually deemphasize his humanity, so that he’s all straggly bone and stringy hair, Willem Dafoe’s carnival barker Clem assures us, people will pay good money to make themselves feel better, by looking down on this degraded excuse for a human being. By focusing on this freak show element of America’s past, one the country would prefer to quietly forget about now that circuses have been outlawed by animal rights activists, Nightmare Alley is thematically akin to the anthology series American Horror Story: Freakshow. That season likewise sought to expose the seamy underbelly of America’s
recreational, sideshow past, by dredging it back up for popular consumption. But curiously, Del Toro doesn’t indict circuses and carnival sideshows for their exploitation of people by exhibiting them as glorified animals in a human zoo, to be gawked at and ogled. Instead, he depicts his carnival as one big, extended family, where physical ‘freaks,’ and their fellow human outcasts can both find a home and three hot meals a day. Rather than feeling victimized by their present condition, they consider themselves lucky to have work during the Great Depression when so many normal looking people like Stan tramp the roads and ride the rails in a desperate search for occupation. These human ‘curiosities’ are star attractions on the sideshow circuit, whereas Stan, without any talent of his own, can only operate rides and run concession stands.
Yet even this ‘humane’ carnival is threatened with being brought up on charges of human exploitation, for, ‘emphasizing cruelty to both animal and man,’ by carrying around illegal acts like geek shows, which feature a degraded drunk, kept in a cage, and willing to do anything for profit, even bite the heads off living chickens. And it’s this very close call that allows Stan to flex the new skills he’s picked up from the fortune teller, by cold reading the sheriff (played by Jim Beaver) who’s trying to shut them down, sizing him up as just another tin horn dupe. This scene also first lets us sense the secret thrill Stan gets from holding center stage and keeping his captive audience all atwitter.
Interestingly, Nightmare Alley correlates this sideshow’s disreputable ‘star’ acts with more prestigious forms of entertainment. As Stan is advised by the new carny owner (played by Tim Blake Nelson), “I don’t like mentalism. It’s too old-timey. Always got to have something new these days. Sensationalism.” Meaning entertainment acts must constantly be evolving, to keep abreast of the changing times, and stay relevant. But by suggesting that all entertainment is just varying degrees of the same business, Nightmare Alley offers an intriguing peek at the more sordid and macabre side of show biz, one bereft of any tinsel or glamour.
Willem Dafoe’s Clem Hoatley, is meant to represent the ultimate seedy barker of this sordid environment, that’s decaying around the edges. As such, he’s akin to the sleazy Masters of Ceremonies played by the lewd likes of Joel Grey in Cabaret, or Gig Young in They Shoot Horses Don’t They?. He should be the movie’s ringmaster, keeping all hoops whirling in tandem, much as Funhouse Jack (played by Clifton Collins, Jr.) does those moving parts in his own amusement park attraction.
The movie makes a major misstep with the character though. Dafoe’s Clem starts out so promising, as the arbiter of this creepy traveling fair. The director seems to be setting him up to be a sinister, satanic figure, degrading humanity by taking men who have hit rock bottom and turning them into geeks, something ugly and animalistic. He appears a sort of devil’s advocate, blowing smoke out his nostrils in the cold like some infernal emissary crawled up out of the pit. The wicked tempter along Stan’s wayward path, he even offers the teetotaler some alcohol. But the script never finds a way to develop him, in order to fully flesh out the role. Instead, we’re permitted to lose track of him, along with the rest of the carny cast, as they dissemble out of sight and fade into the woodwork, like a vanishing act. So even the clap back to Clem at the end, in the form of the carnival’s new promoter, doesn’t seem to have the proper dramatic emphasis it should, because the sentiment hasn’t really been earned.
The director frames Ron Perlman’s strongman in relation to Mark Povinelli’s prickly Major Mosquito, who insists Stan not condescend by bending down to talk to him when he speaks, the same way Browning did Victor McLaglen’s strongman and Harry Earles’ midget in The Unholy Three. Then for some reason, fails to follow through by depicting one as the brawn and the other as the brain. Still, while it’s never explained why, the Major haunts Perlman’s backgrounds, same way the geek haunts Stan’s, like their respective characters’ mini-me, portents whose ‘shadow looms large and close.’
As Clem asks the audience rhetorically about the ‘star’ of his geek act, “Is it a beast or is it a man.” And the script has been shaped in a way to show those of us equally enrapt, in the movie audience, how a human being could sink so low. The question concerning this, ‘unexplained mystery of the universe,’ could just as easily be applied to Stan, who will prove himself to be a beast in human form, as he gazes upon his own future fate. Indeed, the entire film seems like a hellish vise, disguised to entrap him in this ultimate nightmare, as he strays further and further from the straight and narrow, careening into crooked side alleys shrouded in their all-pervading moral darkness.
Almost as if he could sense what fate has in store, Stan develops a strange fascination with the carnival geek, borne of equal parts revulsion and compassion. Unlike his keeper Clem, Stan for instance won’t abandon the geek in the rain, on the doorstep of a convalescent hospital to recover from delirium tremens. We were never shown the revolting geek act in the original movie, but since it’s integral to the director’s theme here, concerning the thin line between man and beast, del Toro pulls no punches.
Burying the dead chickens whose heads are ripped off during the sadistic act, Stan considers the geek a ‘poor soul’ for having fallen so far. And for all her later mental probing, his psychiatrist Lilith never quite dredges this up, his greatest fear, of somehow similarly devolving, like that half-human, half-fish Amphibian man in The Shape of Water, and slipping all the way back down the evolutionary ladder, by becoming just another sideshow attraction. As the barker dares the crowd before his Funhouse, “Let the mirror show you who you are, and who you may be.”
Easy on the eyes himself, as carnival fortune teller Madame Zeena (played superlatively by Toni Collette) observes, Stan trades on his superficial surface looks, his ‘panache,’ without ever looking deep enough into that mirror to be brought face to face with who he really is, on the inside. This womanizer begins practicing his powers of persuasion by beguiling those starry-eyed females around him. At least the ones he believes to be soft touches, capable of easing him along on the road to success. Same way he’ll later expand his talents, by holding sway over larger groups of similarly deluded, easy marks, eager to believe whatever he’s selling them, just as ardently as the carny crowds do. Used and discarded, it’s fraudulent psychics Zeena and her husband Pete (David Strathairn gives a great performance) who will prove Stan’s initial steppingstones to fame and fortune.
As Lilith later notes, Pete bears a strong similarity to Stan’s real dad, manifesting his deep-seated need for a father figure he can look up to. And this central motif, concerning Stan’s antagonistic relationship with his old man, is carried throughout the movie. Such as when Stan tells Molly that her father’s a man ‘after his own heart,’ upon learning that he could, ‘charm his way out of anything.’ Assuming this same fatherly role for Stan’s sake, Pete takes him under his wing.
Teaching him the tricks of his trade, he passes on all the professional secrets that would by rights be handed down father to son, under other circumstances. Explaining how to cold read, he tells Stan he’s “got to know how to read the mark. How they move, talk, dress. People are desperate to let you know who they are… to be seen.” Pete foolishly gives his entire game away for free. With his one-size-fits-all philosophy, he perceptively takes stock of Stan, assessing that with young men it’s nearly always the father who caused their Freudian complex.
There’s a vague, never confirmed implication that Pete has the genuine gift, beyond simple cold reading, an inner eye capable of seeing right through Stan, into his dark soul, the way Stan isn’t quite able to adequately assess himself in those mirrors. Pete professes the belief that if one proves good at reading people, as Stan does, it’s a dark talent learned as a child, in order to stay one step ahead of the people tormenting you. Much as the children of violent alcoholics often become wary and watchful. Born without a conscience, Stan’s not adverse to using people to get where he wants to be, lifted into the gilded life of the privileged few, the proud, influential, feted and untouchable. Stan, whenever offered, claims his lips never touch liquor, and he looks down on Pete for not being able to control his own drinking habits.
As with his real father, he believes the older man had his fair chance to make a big name for himself, and blew it in favor of the bottle. Subsequently, Pete’s become lost in some permanent blind stupor that leaves him black out drunk, when he was capable of seeing so much when sober. Which explains why he can’t see Stan for who and what he really is, until it’s too late. Stan proves the worst kind of enabler, providing the rotgut liquor that will allow him to keep milking Pete of his secrets, until he’s learned all he can and is capable of doing the act on his own. While alcoholic Pete, we suspect, will become the first of many to be used and abandoned by Stan, and the next sacrificial victim of Clem’s geek-making methods.
As Zeena derisively scorns, Stan fully earned Pete’s book of secrets, telling him, “You worked hard for it.” Not just by pumping Pete for information, but also by leading Zeena on, rolling her for money and favors, practically prostituting himself. Then claiming that virginal Molly is the woman he’s really been pining after all the time, rather than this loose woman who’s been around. Given Stan’s mercenary motives, we’re not quite certain ourselves whether he means to treat Molly well, wanting her for herself and to lift her out of her seedy surroundings, convincing her she’s better than the carny that has been so good to him and provided her only home. Or, if he’s simply scouting out a distractingly attractive accomplice for his mindreading act. But no matter, since he’ll be perfectly willing to throw her over as well, the moment a more advantageous piece of mink slinks along.
When Zeena does her fortune telling act on the fairgrounds, reading her marks cold, she’s like a psychic on some daytime talk show, maneuvering her way around wrong guesses by misdirection and distraction. We see how she also feeds into people’s unspoken dreams and optimism during the lowest ebb of the Depression, hoping to make a few quick coins. Given nothing left to hope for, she exploits the crowd’s economic desperation and spiritual hunger, their belief in a higher power, as faith healers would during the tent revival movement, and televangelists continue to do today. But despite first giving Stan the idea for his mentalist act, visions of dollar signs dancing in his head, Zeena and Pete possess a measure of integrity he’s completely lacking in.
They draw the line at exploiting people’s deep-seated emotional traumas by holding séances, promising grieving loved ones that they can be reunited with their dearly departed, in a manner that seems truly unconscionable. As Pete prophetically warns, “No good comes from spook shows. It’s not hope if it’s not for real.” It’s Pete who tempers their sacrilegious act, with the same sanctimonious bible talk Stan will use on that deputy who comes to close them down. Zeena and Pete are meant to be seen as retaining some measure of virtue and honor in their fleecing of the public, a principled decency that deceptive Stan will entirely dispense with, pursuing far more mercenary methods during his ruthless climb to the top.
No sphere of carny life had less regulation than sideshows, so when swindler Stan is described as a ‘snake oil salesman,’ the movie aligns his brand of fleecing with that of the past, tapping into America’s long, storied history of medicine shows, faith healers, hucksters and flimflammers, specialists in the art of the deal, traveling from town to town to peddle their false wares. Nightmare Alley also subtly links yesterday’s scam artists with today’s money-grubbing political grifters. Flip-flopping their affiliations whichever way the most profitable wind seems to be blowing, they likewise exploit a massive political base of susceptible, delusional or willfully ignorant marks, desperate to believe whatever bunkum they’re being shoveled, through crowd source funding and sponsored donor endorsements, miracle cures and get-rich-quick schemes.
As each emerging online cult and conspiracy rabbit hole has demonstrated over the last few years, there’s still a sucker born every minute. America remains a country full of easily swayed dupes, susceptible to any sort of snake charmer, as long as he’s telling them just what they want to hear. To quote Voltaire, “Truly, whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Much as the carny folk describe the yokel bumpkins they exploit for profit as ‘yahoos,’ enticing them into their rigged games. For his part, Stan casually moves from carny con man to a swanky nightclub ‘Mentalism’ show, which recalls the phony magic acts in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Believing this latest exposition to be a step up from his former traveling sideshow exhibits, once Stan’s thoroughly exploited fertile ground, he’s onto the next big swindle, with his marks increasing in power and prosperity with every step he takes up that ladder of success. Until he finds himself entirely out of his depth and trying to bluff his way through games far more deadly than The Ring Toss and the Shooting Gallery he’d easily mastered. I was worried that the transition, once Stan leaves the fairgrounds behind, would terminally damage the temper and tone of the movie. But del Toro, abetted by a fantastical score by Nathan Johnson, who replaced Alexandre Desplat, smoothes over the bumps with hardly a hiccup. The movie pulls off such a perfect balancing act, that I was almost wishing it had spent a bit more time among the Midway, so we could’ve gotten to know more about the people there.
Instead, Stan sets himself up as a Chandu-like magician, in which guise he now performs profound feats of mysticism for an upscale clientele, monsters in sheep’s clothing, populating high society. Basing his classy act off of the methods he appropriated, or rather stole, from the fortune telling carnies, Stan’s given entré into the best hotels and night clubs in town. Here, the evolutionary sliding scale Stan moves up and down in his pursuit of worldly success, is mirrored with America’s own hierarchical social ladder.
Much as Pete had revealed that the ‘shoes and clothing tell you everything you need to know about a man,’ the better Stan dresses, the more he feels he’s shaken the dirt off his feet, masking his disreputable roots. Convinced he’s risen above his low origins and the carny rabble, he’s profoundly discombobulated when his past returns to haunt him. While he’d rather be rubbing shoulders with the upper crust of society that his new act brings him in contact with, he finds a desperately lonely Molly has invited their old sideshow friends to their swank new digs, trying to rekindle the convivial sense of family she hasn’t felt since leaving the carnival.
But while he’s moved up in society, Stan assures his old cronies that his methods haven’t changed one iota. Only the bank accounts of their marks have grown exponentially. As he notes, “It’s the same grift, just different threads.” But it’s clear that Stan sees himself as being above his old acquaintances now. He feels more at home taking a golden, art deco elevator up to Lilith’s office for their rendezvous, while running the lines he’ll deliver to her like a trained actor, to induce her to join his lucrative con by releasing private information to him concerning her wealthy patients.
Cast as this psychiatrist who attends Stan and Molly’s mentalist act, to assess if he’s the real deal before advising whether her wealthy client Judge Kimball (played by Peter MacNeill) should visit him, Cate Blanchett has grown so much larger than life over the years that she, like Nightmare Alley itself, has come to seem luminously unreal. She’s so dialed-up, it’s doubtful she’s capable any longer of delivering normal, human-scaled performances. It happens sometimes, the talents of actors just get too big for the movie frame to contain them, with Blanchett being the sort of grand dame who only seems convincing now as queens or dragon ladies or heroically-scaled Amazons.
Which is why she seems so perfect for this role. Too glorious for most movies, she manages to slip into this evocation of Hollywood’s glamorous past as if it were a smooth silk glove. And it’s been quite a while since an actress has been draped in such seductive shadow and mystical highlights, allowing her to evoke a whole litany of love goddesses from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Slithering like a dazzlingly prismatic serpent through proceedings, she’s Eve waiting to coil around and bob for Adam’s apple, or, better yet, his restless first wife Lilith, whose name she bears.
Far more learned and refined than Stanley, when Lilith quietly hisses in the ear of this modern miracle man, “What do you sell?” he can unashamedly reveal, “I’m a hustler and I know it. I’m on the make and I know it.” Both are selling their private brands of panacea, one old fashioned spiritualism, the other the last word in modern science. Stan accuses the therapist of running a racket just the, ‘same as me.’ Yet this indication that Lilith, as a therapist, with her pseudo-psychobabble, is a sham, as much as he is a con man, is never logically sussed out. How this conflation of the profession of psychiatry and the con of mentalism are supposed to be just two sides of the same coin. At least apart from the superficial similarities of course. They’re both invested in cold reading their marks and patients, picking their minds to find out what makes them tick and how they can best be manipulated for bigger profit.
When Lilith claims that Stan barely knows her, he can honestly counter, on the contrary, that he knows her quite well, saying, “I know you’re no good. And I know that because neither am I.” Which would appear to make them perfect for each other, considering it’s a line that could fit snugly into any ‘40s noir. Though Stan will falsely, ‘assume you’re a lady,’ he does a little psychoanalyzing himself, claiming that dames like Lilith ‘always have mommy issues. Daddy issues too.’ Picking up what he’s putting down, Lilith completes his thought with, ‘Electra complex, is it?’ The same name Molly took for her carny act. Indeed, it’s Molly who will prove to have both their numbers, yelling to rotter Stan that, “…bet she seems like class to you. Well, she’s not and neither are you!” Lessons learned too late.
With mindreading being equated with head shrinking here, Stan induces Lilith to join his illegal ‘act,’ contributing her own line of expertise. She advises how to best stage the materializations for Stan’s bogus séances, based on her psychiatric study of human response, telling him, “You’ll need blood on her hands. The more shocking the image, the less inclined he’ll be to examine it.” And advising him, “Don’t write anything down. This is not a carnival trick. Leave no trace.” She makes it clear that this is no longer amateur hour, given the long game they’re running and the quality of their clientele.
Lilith agrees to aid and abet Stan in his snow job only in exchange for him agreeing to let her pick his mind. Dissecting him like Hannibal Lector, he’s warned, ‘don’t lie. I’ll know if you’re lying.’ Putting the psychologist in this psychological thriller, Lilith considers Stan her greatest patient, deriving her secret pleasure from studying him, like a bug under a microscope, as if he weren’t even human. He proves himself the perfect head case for her records. While she manipulates him like a puppet on a string, as Joe Mantegna did shrink Lindsay Crouse in David Mamet’s tricky House of Games (back in 1987).
Lilith deliriously puffs her way through cartons of cigarettes, sending more evocative smoke wafting into the air all about her, so that she can never be discerned distinctly and made out. Equaling Stan’s playacting every step of the way, until the very end, she ultimately disregards him as small time, a garden variety con artist, hardly on par with her own highly complex games. Eviscerating him with her forked tongue, she takes his full measure, assessing, “You think you stand high above the common man. Your nothing but an Okie with straight teeth.”
This honey pot even succeeds in driving him to drink in a way Clem couldn’t, as Stan begins guzzling like a fish, so he’s no longer clearheaded and on the ball. Where he made the mistake of considering her just another mark he could wrap around his finger, another soft touch for the taking, he comes to find that he was, in fact, her own target all along. The one woman inured to his glorified, two-timing talents, she orchestrates her own form of revenge for his daring to humiliate her by trespassing into her domain at the nightclub earlier. By attempting to analyze her, demonstrating the superiority of his cold reading skills, he’d momentarily deprived her of the sovereign power she wields over mere mortals, much as she accuses him of seeking to exert his own will over ‘common’ men. The only thing she could derive more pleasure from than money, is raining down destruction on men like him, foolish enough to challenge her in this way.
Blanchett brings rare relish to her character’s deviltry. She’s an old-fashioned, no-nonsense femme fatale, the type of dangerous dame any rational thinking person would spot as trouble a mile away. She seems absolutely inspired, rattling off her lines in a low, languorous husk of a whisper as if savoring every word. Her juicy playing is so fearlessly out there, it borders on being over the top, without ever quite careening, as her character does at the end, by overselling it. It’s a full-blooded performance that suggests her caricature of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, which still somehow managed to effectively captured the spiritual essence of that much-mimicked legend. Rather than the “frozen-faced bitch” Molly calls her, in this film, full of grand and grandstanding performances, Blanchett captures the true melodramatic spirit of the retro material and plays it to the hilt, at a different pitch than the rest of the cast.
And yet, other great actors keep drifting by, popping up to portray carny folk or Stan’s high-class marks. Like Mary Steenburgen’s Mrs. Kimball, they provide the heart and soul to the movie. Their unwavering belief in Stan and his confirmations that their loved ones have indeed returned to them, points up how shameless his mercenary actions are in seeking to exploit families’ grief to cash in. Stan blindly convinces himself he’s doing good in the world, while harming no one, despite the negative impact he’s directly having on those around him.
Where Stan truly slips up, is in coming to believe he’s a legitimate faith healer whose powers are real. When guilt-wracked accomplice Molly experiences second thoughts about the confidence game they’re playing, he even reassures her that their final mark, Richard Jenkins’ Ezra Grindle can, “unburden his soul and he can forgive himself. As far as I can tell, that’s what a preacher does every Sunday… all that suffering that he had, we can deliver him some hope.” Ascending beyond Lilith’s sphere of psychiatry, he’s now placing himself in the divine realms of the gods.
He comes to believe he’s acting in good faith; that he, of all people is truly the sort of holy man his religious father foolishly worshipped every Sunday. As we wait for him to assume the nimbus of Jean Simmons’ miracle worker in 1960’s Elmer Gantry. While he saw his father as a sucker and a loser for buying into the ‘fairytale’ of religion, Stan increasingly becomes convinced that the variation he’s selling the faithful is just as meaningful. Backsliding, he begins differentiating less and less between spiritism and the genuinely spiritual.
Stan’s powers and sway over other people allow him to willfully delude himself into believing he’s performing a public good in providing solace to the spiritually lost. He becomes caught up in his own con, subsumed by it, at the expense of all else. Making it clear that Stan, lost in his own deception, has sunk so deep into the part he’s playing he can hardly discern the make-believe from reality. When he rushes to the bus station after having read Molly’s Dear John letter, it’s less to express his undying devotion, than because she’s leaving him in the lurch, when he’s foolishly gone and gotten himself in over his head. He believes that the hollowness at his core, where the soul he sold to Satan should be, can be filled with money, success and, ultimately, godlike powers of divination. As Molly prophetically discerns, “Whatever’s missing in you, it’s surely not me.”
When hooked up to Ezra’s lie detector, Stan directly recalls Molly, when she was herself trussed up as ‘Elektra’ for her earlier act. It’s further foreshadowing, as we’re reminded how she’d asked him at the time if he intended to put her in a real electric chair. Given what’s come to pass since, we see how much closer he’s actually moved toward that inevitable, final destination. He appears to be inviting it with open arms, riding the gallows to hell, stepping down the wayward path toward perdition by engaging in these deceitful games of fraud and illusion. Stan’s come to believe his own swill so thoroughly that the lie detector can’t even pick up his falsehoods. Claiming to be in contact with the great beyond, without blinking, he
silently affirms Ezra’s professed belief that, “You can read minds, you’ve talked to the dead.” Grindle sports the round, telltale Caligari specs that usually denote del Toro’s own alter ego. So, we’re alerted to take note of what we need to, in the person of this billionaire. We discover he forced his lost love to terminate her pregnancy, reminding us of the collection of floating fetuses we saw Clem kept back at the carnival in formaldehyde jars. Deformed, discarded and unwanted, similar to the way that orphanage doctor in The Devils Backbone described the children abandoned to his care, they may be meant to represent the castoff sideshow performers themselves.
One spotlighted exhibit possesses a third, Cyclops-like eye located in the middle of its forehead, denoting the sixth sense central to the movie, an inner eye. It appears identical to the all-seeing eye Stan had stitched onto the ‘blindfold’ used during his mentalist act. As well as the peeping eye graphics decorating the Funhouse, so similar to Salvador Dali’s designs for Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which also took note of the increasing prevalence of psychiatry in post-war America. Considering the movie is steeped in so much foreshadowing, Stan seems blind as a bat not to see his fate coming.
When Mrs. Kimball shoots herself, it’s likewise through the eye, which seems to further signify Stan’s own blindness to the perils of his charade, which he still views as harmless, despite its having become mortally dangerous, as Pete had earlier warned. As he’d cautioned his protégé at the time, it was possible that his prized book of magic secrets could give unworthy initiates, such as Stan himself, ‘shuteye,’ which is when man begins to believe he really has The Power. And when conmen ‘begin to believe their own lies,’ he prophesies that “good, God-fearing people can get hurt.” Even Pete’s widow, phony psychic Zeena correctly prophesies Stan’s downfall and impending doom in her cards, warning him, “You’re gonna find out what’s coming to you…. But you can still choose, Stan.” If he were only willing to take the necessary steps to alter his dark destiny.
The enclosed garden Ezra built to honor his lost love is like a mausoleum. And as the two men move across the snow-covered estate, they might be traversing the cloistered grounds of a monastery. Stan even calls Ezra ‘brother,’ as if he’d been anointed an elder sometime in the interim, delivering penance to the repentant from on high. And when he asks Ezra, who claims to have more money than he needs, if he thinks he can just buy the spiritual redemption he’s seeking, his horselaugh at the young man’s naiveté possesses the resonance of true horror. It’s far more unsettling than any of the spooks Stan claims to be able to materialize. As Ezra points out, he’s invested a fortune in the medium, and wants results, never once doubting that powerful men such as himself can indeed purchase their own salvation, like a medieval indulgence.
Stan willfully overlooks the depths of this old man’s own delusions, which may match his own, unaware of how dangerous the untouchably wealthy can be when their demands and desires go unmet. Lilith concurs, cautioning that, “Dealings with powerful people have consequences – Permanent ones.” But Stan, having never experienced any accountability for preying on the helpless poor who passed through the carnival, remains unperturbed. Yet in trying to fleece the wealthy and well connected, he soon finds himself caught in an ever-tightening moral vise. He’s become unwilling father confessor, serving as captive eavesdropper on the sort of skin crawling sins only the most powerful pillars of society are permitted to get away with.
As blind as bespectacled Ezra without his glasses, it’s Stan’s trespassing into the God-given realms of the living and the dead, telling the old man to get on his knees to pray, with his eyes closed tight, that seals his own fate. It ensures that he’ll never see no more. Removing the embedded shards of glass left in his fist, we’re reminded of that rebel dissident in Pan’s Labyrinth, so brutally bludgeoned to death with a wine bottle. But by plugging in Ezra’s last-minute confession, about having ‘hurt other women,’ the movie seems to be attempting to mitigate Stan’s actions to a degree, by making them seem more like divine retribution for a sinner. And by exculpating him in this sense, it further plays into his existing God complex. It’s all the more curious, considering the bespectacled characters in del Toro movies usually serve as moral arbiters, that the director doesn’t allow himself to fully identify with either Grindle or protagonist Stan here, though one would think he would, given their joint positioning as our masters of illusions.
When asked, Stan had said the wheel of fortune he constructed for Molly’s ‘Elektra’ act was just for show. But it will become a predominate visual motif throughout the movie, with repeated images of circles, like the lighted Ferris wheel at the carnival, the backstage mirror lined with bulbs at the nightclub act. Or, the spinning carousel Stan and Molly ride, along with the shape of her bedroom window. Best of all is that diabolic funhouse that invites the beautiful and the ‘damned,’ like Stan himself, to dare enter, and succumb to all seven of the deadly sins emblazoned on its walls, the surrounding flames of hellfire creeping ever closer. It’s a great set-piece, representing the windmills of the mind, a wheeling, spiraling vortex to suck in the unwary. Such mise-en-scène never allows viewers to forget the all-encircling hand of fate, in whose grip Stan is caught. “If you displease the right kind of people the world closes in on you very, very fast,” Lilith warns, as the net tightens around him. Just as Pete had earlier cautioned, no man can outrun God.
Seemingly able to physically suit any era, Bradley Cooper, with his classic looks, appears to be spiraling through time this year, having played a scene-stealing ‘70s movie star in Licorice Pizza, and being dressed and lighted like a golden age matinee idol here. Romantic lead Tyrone Power shocked his fans when he dared to play this unsavory character. But with his sharp, American-eagle profile and shiny, silver dollar eyes, Cooper seems absolutely right for this shyster role somehow, same way his Stan proves so right for his final one here. He’s never been more convincing an actor than when playing this thorough fraud.
This may be his finest performance since Silver Linings Playbook, where he played another imposter with Oedipal issues, trying to convince others he was something he wasn’t. His Stan encompasses the country’s entire pockmarked past peppered with quacks, charlatans, swindlers and mountebanks, greasy salesmen selling the public their bill of goods. Bringing a similar cock-‘o-the-walk quality to this role, as he has others in the past, with his satanic little moustache, the smile of a predatory shark, and a devilish gleam in the eye, Cooper seems just the sort that folk could be taken in by. He experiences a thrilling rush while fooling a readily beguiled public, and the movie certainly amps up the actor’s dramatic battery, by letting him run the gamut.
Hounded by his seemingly preordained fate, his Stan precariously slides down the social ladder, slipping into a nightmarish hobo existence of skid row flophouses and shanty towns. Landing at the very bottom, he becomes the sort of weak-willed wino he always claimed he wouldn’t, at which point he suggests Edward G. Robinson at the end of Little Caesar. He’s even willing to fork over his fancy gold watch for a quick swig from the cheap bottle being passed around communally. When reapplying to the same carny that gave him his start, this former teetotaler will be told “I don’t hire no boozers.”
Impeccably tailored throughout the midsection, it cuts deep when he has to, “apologize for my appearance. I’ve fallen on some hard times of late.” Even more disheveled than he was at the beginning, when on the lam from the law, wounded Stan, again a fugitive, even smears his red paw print on the wall during his hasty flight, as the escaping Amphibian man did in The Shape of Water. Just like the geek we saw at the beginning, hounded and hunted down like an animal himself now, Stan becomes a increasingly mangey beast, escaping in a train car filled with chicken coops, seemingly intended to mock his tribulations.
And in accepting the only sort of living offered him now, Stan will eventually forsake his humanity entirely. In del Toro’s previous movies, it was the perfectly ordinary looking people who proved themselves ‘beasts,’ under the skin, where his ‘monsters’ displayed all the innate humanity seemingly lacking in ‘normal’ looking people. Stan likewise wears his deformities on the inside, where they’re well hidden. Which is why he always felt so at home among the human curiosities at the carnival. And by the end has accepted the fact that he’s not so different, certainly no better than they are, despite his superficial, surface assumptions of normalcy. By exploiting and using everyone in his pitiless climb to the top, Stan has proven himself a ‘beast’ in human form, rather than a man of character and integrity.
So, it’s only by accepting his pre-ordained fate at the end, taking on the guise of a hideous ‘monster,’ that hope is held out for him to truly earn the moral absolution Ezra tried to buy. This fitting finale feels just right. With its all-encircling sense of closure, Nightmare Alley provides one of cinema’s unforgettably ironic cappers. And by so blindly shilling movie audiences, with his flamboyant swirl of specters, psychics, fortune tellers, fortune hunters, faith healers and sideshow freaks, director del Toro proves himself the full equal of his huckster lead, a Barnum-scaled humbug. Yet, rather than a disappointing, stitched together Fiji mermaid, the movie is very much of a piece, with no elements clashing against the overall aesthetic. Del Toro is a Barnum capable of delivering the goods. His Nightmare Alley is a sheer masterpiece.