Nightmare Alley

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

5/5 (1)

The original “Nightmare Alley” (1947) has a fantastic eerie feeling where everything is uncertain and the only constant is greed. Directed by Edmund Goulding, starring the iconic Tyrone Power with his oft-recognizable bushy eyebrows, the film is a noir classic.

Now there is a current version directed by Guillermo del Toro. The story is well handled with fine acting. The singular drawback is a new pulpy finale that spoils some of the nuance and weirdness that made the first film so intriguing.

After an interlude showing a burning house, Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a wandering ne’er do well who spies a carnival. To his horror and fascination, a freakish carny bites the head from a chicken with blood everywhere. Later the carny shrieks and runs into a funhouse exhibit, where he attacks the carnival barker (Willem Dafoe) and Stan beats the man with an iron pipe in unbridled rage.

While walking, Stan meets the nocturnal Zeena (Toni Collette). Zeena is aroused by the feckless but handsome drifter and the two agree to run a psychic scam together, despite Zeena’s domestic partner Pete (David Strathairn), a former grifter who is now an alcoholic. A day later Stan sees the young, athletic and dark eyed Molly (Rooney Mara) and proposes to run away with her, executing Zeena’s scam. Molly consents head over heels.

When Pete is having a bad night of DTs, Stan gives him wood grain alcohol. Pete passes out, dead.

Cate Blanchett delivers an especially spot on performance as Lilith, the icy doctor who hooks Stan away from Molly.

Bradley Cooper gives a fine outing as the spineless Stan who is governed by libido and lust for money. He is a bit laconic in his interpretation though and lacks the snaky charm of Tyrone Power, his noir twin.

The plot is nearly the same as the 1947 film. The only change is Stan’s bloodlust and rage which gives a red ketchup climax to his predicament. For fans of del Toro this is fine and perfectly in keeping with the director’s style, and there is a smooth visual flair. It is only from the perspective of a classic remake of noir that the film falters and the carnival tent deflates.

The dark and gritty meditation on the folly of choice and the hopelessness of addiction is lost. Stan is not a blood fisted killer. In this sense, this latest wet and angry alley is more the stuff of Guillermo’s Gothic Grotto than a revered noir. That said, the director’s fans will be well ensnared by the auteur’s ghoulish antics, now well known.

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