Plain, Simple Tom’s thoughts on . . . “Nightmare Alley” (2021)

Director/co-writer Guillermo Del Toro’s latest, an adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s book that was also made into the 1947 film directed by Edmund Goulding and which starred Tyrone Power, stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a lonely drifter with a mysterious past who, escaping from past demons, finds himself working at a local carnival where he quickly learns the secrets of a particular mind reading act and where he becomes romantically involved with Molly (Rooney Mara). After marrying her, the two take off and Stanton sets up his own mind reading act, eventually crossing paths with seductive doctor Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) who introduces him to several wealthy former patients for him to use his act on but when Stanton sets his sights on the rich and powerful, but also very dangerous Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), the wily grifter soon finds his world turned upside down, soon at the mercy of some really dangerous people.

Though I don’t remember too much about it (besides the character of “the geek” as well as the ending), I definitely remember watching Edmund Goulding’s original Nightmare Alley with my father – a film that he was most eager to introduce me to but also one that, though I liked it, I didn’t love, maybe because I wasn’t in the right mood at the time – and I was of course eager to see how Del Toro would fare in bringing the story to the big screen once again. Having now seen it, I would say that the great director has done justice to the original story and it is, overall, a very strong film. One that I think my father would have enjoyed as well.

First of all, the film does, admittedly, take a little bit of time to get going as much of the opening third is dedicated to watching Stanton walking around the carnival, gradually getting to know the people and becoming aware of David Strathairn’s mind reading act, learning all of the secrets and tricks, but while it’s good for a film to slowly lay the groundwork and to set up all of its characters, maybe introducing a little mystery here and there, this first section is technically the weakest part as it seems to carry on for a little too long, though we do get to witness some interesting scenes during this time.

But when Stanton and Molly inevitably leave the carnival, it is from here that the film starts to get more interesting. Or, more specifically, the film becomes so much more involving when Cate Blanchett makes her presence known because she is utterly hypnotic and tantalising as the mysterious femme fatale and subsequent scenes that see her and Bradley Cooper interact provide the best parts of the film because, thanks to the chemistry and charisma of the leading actors as well as the sharp dialogue which really does justice to all the great film noirs of old, these sequences are so mesmerising and hypnotic (those scenes between Cooper and Blanchett positively smoulder) and we, as an audience, just can’t help but be drawn in to all of the intrigue and tantalising plot developments.

The film goes on to become noticeably more tense as dangerous characters are introduced and as the formerly confident and fearless Stanton begins to unravel and the dark plot developments of the final act are remarkably tense and exciting to view, it all having been directed brilliantly by Del Toro; I believe that he has here created his own classic noir, one that’s a loving tribute to what came before and one that demonstrates his understanding of what made the greats of the forties and fifties so memorable, and in the design department, the film is really something to look at (it’s just as pleasing as something like The Shape of Water) and the cinematography and production design is commendable.

Regarding the performances, Bradley Cooper exudes the mystery, charm, swagger and cockiness that’s required of the character, whilst also believably unravelling when things inevitably start to go wrong and Blanchett, as mentioned before, proves to be ideally cast as the femme fatale and she just oozes confidence, sex appeal, mystery and danger in her scenes with Cooper. Alongside, Rooney Mara is sweet and likeable as Molly, David Strathairn impresses in his “mentor role” of carny Pete, and Richard Jenkins plays against type and is appropriately sinister and nasty as the antagonistic Grindle.

But a Del Toro film without Doug Jones? Inconceivable!

An expertly directed and beautifully designed film, Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a loving tribute to the great film noirs of yesteryear and it impresses thanks to its sharp script and the smouldering, hypnotic scenes between Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett.

★ ★ ★ ★

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