What does clout buy you? That tends to be a question every film director ends up asking right after a film they make becomes a popular hit or wins an Oscar. That’s when their name is at its peak in Hollywood and studios and producers are eager to work with them in order to see if they can keep that winning streak going. Occasionally it doesn’t matter as much because the filmmaker in question is already working on their next movie before those laurels arrive, which is what happened last year when Chloe Zhao won the Oscar while already in post-production on Eternals, which is probably the movie she had expected would get her the clout (maybe miscalculated there). But when that’s not the case this peak of relevance is usually when a filmmaker will try to cash in and finally get that passion project greenlit that they’ve long wanted to make but could never get the moneymen to pony up the cash, often some sort of adaptation that they’ve long nurtured. Sometimes this can lead to great things; for instance I for one think that If Beale Street Could Talk is an even greater accomplishment than Moonlight even if the Academy and critical consensus don’t seem to see it that way, or perhaps look at the fine Little Women adaptation Greta Gerwig was able to make after the success of Lady Bird. Other times though this can lead to a sort of “Sophomore Slump” even if it’s not really the director’s second film just because that’s when everyone is watching them, like when Ben Affleck made that Live by Night movie with his Argo clout or when Ava DuVernay followed up her triumphant Selma with a head scratching version of A Wrinkle in Time. Well, in 2017 Guillermo del Toro (a man who often needs to struggle to get funding for his various passion projects) found himself having rather improbably winning an Oscar for his interspecies romance The Shape of Water and all eyes were on him to see what he’s be able to get greenlit next. The answer is a little surprising but kind of makes sense at the same time: a new big budget version of the novel Nightmare Alley.
You would think that with that title and this director this would be a horror movie but it really isn’t. Instead it’s an adaptation of a 1946 novel of the same title by a guy named William Lindsay Gresham. I’m not sure that book would technically be considered a work of pulp fiction but it was certainly pulp adjacent and was largely known for its dark look at the world of carnivals from an author who’d done a lot of research into their inner-workings and used it as a backdrop for a story about the rise and fall of a conman named Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper). Carlisle is something of a drifter as the story begins and gets a job at a traveling carnival run by a guy named Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe) featuring a lot of antiquated acts of the era ranging from a strong man named Bruno (Ron Perlman) to a truly grotesque “geek show” in which a desperate drunk bites the heads off of chickens for a crowds amusement. One of the more popular acts is a mentalist show where a lady (Toni Collette) and her father (David Strathairn) employ various cold reading tricks to make the crowds think they can read minds and channel spirits, which Stan takes an interest in and tries to learn while seeing the electricity channeling woman Molly (Rooney Mara). Little does he know that this interest in mentalism will eventually lead him to cross paths with a dangerous femme fatale (Cate Blanchett) and a brutal gangster (Richard Jenkins) who he’ll have to take on in a battle of wits.
This is not the first time that William Lindsay Gresham’s novel has been brought to the big screen; about a year after the novel’s release we got an adaptation directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Tyrone Power which had to bowdlerize the material a bit in order to meet the requirements of the Production Code but which made up for it by indulging in the film noir style of the time. Despite the censorship that movie was still considered rather lurid and controversial so it hasn’t been shown a whole lot over the years and isn’t necessarily seen as an all-time classic or anything but it does have a legacy and is a pretty good movie. I saw that version earlier this year, so I went into this new adaptation already knowing the basic story but not sure how much was changed between the two version and while this isn’t a West Side Story situation where there is this iconic movie the remake needs to live up to I must say I was maybe expecting there to be bigger changes between the two than there were. Both movies tell the same basic story and cover most of the same sequences; the characters in the new one are allowed to curse and talk about sex and there are a couple of scenes of violence that weren’t there in the older film but the absence of these things from the older film do no fundamentally change it. In fact I think I may well have enjoyed the new one a decent bit more of I hadn’t seen the original as it would have given me a bit more of a sense of surprise as the story unfolded.
The main difference between the two films is probably the central character, who in the original version is your typical noir protagonist who starts out as a potentially salvageable person who eventually falls when he meets the wrong femme fatale and succumbs to the green eyed monster, but in this remake it’s pretty clear that this guy was kind of fucked up from the very beginning. Bradley Cooper is a generally more rough and tumble actor than Tyrone Powers, who was very much playing against type when he was in this role, but also an actor who can clean up and blend better into high society in the film’s second half. This is not the most challenging role he’s taken on, but he does make it work pretty well. The other big difference here is that the Richard Jenkins character is greatly expanded here. In the 1947 version he was a mostly innocent sucker but here he’s a vicious gangster with a whole lot to atone for. I think that was cut from the original mostly for purposes of time and I can see an argument that that was for the best (at two and a half hours this movie does feel like it could have been trimmed) but the version of the character here is certainly more interesting and does give the film a bit more to chew on in its second half.
As I said earlier this is not a horror movie and in some ways it may seem like an odd choice for Del Toro given that there aren’t any literal monsters here. I would also say that the movie is generally a bit less humanist than some of his other films, which usually do have sympathetic characters at their center or are interested in finding sympathy in monsters whereas this movie is pretty unrelentingly dark and cynical. I think what attracted him to the story, aside from how fun it would be to bring cool carnival noir imagery to the screen, is the theme about the ethics of fortune telling and séances that the Cooper character wades into in the second half. Del Toro has made it known that despite his love of bringing monsters to the screen he is in fact highly skeptical about any sort of claims of the paranormal in the real world and I suspect that as a horror filmmaker he has some complex feelings about depicting ghosts and goblins without indulging in suggesting that they’re real. I cannot, however, say that this theme ever feels like it’s completely explored here and it’s also not the deepest exploration of other themes like alcoholism either and I do suspect there will be people who watch this and find themselves wondering what the point of all this really is. That said, I have very few specific complaints about the movie and there’s very little in it I would change, it just kind of never comes together into something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a good movie, but I’m not sure it’s entirely more successful than its predecessor and never quite feels like it lives up to its potential.
***1/2 out of Five