Nightmare Alley (2021), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a remake of a 1947 film based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham. It’s a long (2.5 hours), an ambitious period piece that evokes the atmosphere of old noir style movies.
Nightmare Alley stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a drifter running from a crime who starts working for a traveling carnival. Nightmare Alley is full of strong character actors, which is fitting for a movie that’s largely set in a traveling carnival. There’s the unsavory owner Clem (William Dafoe), a fortuneteller named Zeena (Toni Collette) and her brilliant but alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), Bruno the strongman (Ron Perlman), and Molly (Rooney Mara), a girl who survives apparent electrocution night after night. The carnival also has a geek who eats live chickens, so the movie isn’t for the squeamish.
The early scenes of the carnival, which are left out of the 1947 film, simply serve as Stanton’s origin story. He takes up with Molly, convincing her that they are both capable of grander things, and they take their act to the big city (or Buffalo, anyway, which seems like a big city compared to the small towns Stanton and Molly are accustomed to). We next see them conning higher end marks in nightclubs.
Nightmare Alley is not only set in the 1930 and early 40s (the onset of America’s entry into World War 2 is a background story heard on news broadcasts) but the film’s style and sensibility recall movies of this era. Of course, as a remake, this isn’t really unexpected. However, del Toro could have chosen to reimagine Gresham’s tale through a more modern lens. Instead, he amplifies many old tropes, most notably the powerful figure of a beautiful but deadly femme fatale, perfectly cast with Cate Blanchett.
Nightmare Alley is an unapologetically old-fashioned film. The neat way the story cycles back on itself is reminiscent of not only movies from the black and white era but also shows like the original Twilight Zone, where characters get what’s coming to them. This, of course, can be traced back much further, such as to the Greek tragedies. However, sometime in the late 20th century, movies began to evolve (not necessarily implying improvement) in a more postmodern direction, and things didn’t have to make sense, destiny was uncertain, and you never know what might happen. Modern audiences may, therefore, find Nightmare Alley a bit hackneyed, which is fine as long as you understand that del Toro has not actually “post modernized” a tale from the old days of Hollywood, simply made it bigger, longer, and flashier.