Newport This Week

Step Right Up, Folks, It’s ‘Nightmare Alley’


Bradley Cooper stars as carnival con man Stanton Carlisle in Guillermo del Toro's stylish remake of

Bradley Cooper stars as carnival con man Stanton Carlisle in Guillermo del Toro’s stylish remake of “Nightmare Alley.”

Director Guillermo del Toro has said often that he loves monsters and monster films. His 2017 Oscar winner, “The Shape of Water,” a science fiction romance between a lonely outcast and a reptile, proves that affinity for audiences less fa­miliar with his earlier films such as “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Crimson Peak.”

Del Toro’s latest, the much-an­ticipated remake of the noir classic “Nightmare Alley,” is chock full of his signature mix of the dark and the grotesque, burnished with the patina of a fairy tale.

Released in December, “Night­mare Alley,” is already available to stream on both Hulu and HBO Max. The movie is a visual marvel. From the seedy carnival milieu of its first half to the noir-drenched art deco style of its second, cinematogra­pher Dan Laustsen and production designer Tamara Deverell have devised a look for the film that’s steeped in Edward Hopper’s paint­ings, Salvador Dali’s surrealism and spooky fun house imagery.

Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications.

Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications.

The story centers on drifter Stan­ton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who flees horrors in his past and joins a traveling, tattered tent-show carni­val where, surrounded by oddballs and charlatans, he perfects a grift as a mentalist and medium. The plot closely follows William Lind­say Gresham’s 1946 pitch-black novel. The author’s grim story is itself the stuff of noir and deserves its own movie.

“Nightmare Alley’s sordid tale of grifters, carnies and con men was made into director Edmund Gould­ing’s memorable 1947 screen ver­sion, shot in rich black-and-white and starring Tyrone Power, who played against type as the hustler Stanton. The modern version has far more leeway to depict vio­lence, openness about characters’ secrets, including abortion, and horror undercurrents that weren’t allowed in the ‘40s. But that only makes Goulding’s starker version more impressive.

Like Power, Cooper plays off his good looks and natural charm to make Stanton an often-likable opportunist who’s corrupted by greed; a perfect anti-hero. He romances the carnival’s veteran clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette in a performance that rivals Joan Blondell’s in the original), and learns that Zeena and her now alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn), once devised a sophis­ticated code that allowed them to perform a wildly successful men­talist act.

Stan plays a role in a terrible twist that leads to him getting the code. He leaves the carnival with the sweet and trusting sideshow performer, Molly (Rooney Mara), and they develop their own clair­voyant act, eventually hitting it big on the nightclub circuit.

But Stan’s not satisfied with Molly or his shady success. When he meets smooth and slinky Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), the pair concoct a scheme to bilk two of her wealthy clients, a grieving mother (Mary Steenburgen) and a guilt-ridden tycoon (Richard Jenkins). But Stan crosses the line, leading to a downfall that, despite its genuine chills, one can see com­ing a bit too clearly.

“Nightmare Alley,” despite its sleek, sumptuous look and star-studded cast, somehow feels lacking. Goulding’s film was re­leased just a year after the novel and was set in its present time frame. Del Toro’s takes place in the early years of the Depression, but its characters seem more contem­porary, as if reflecting noir tradi­tion rather than embodying it.

This is particularly true of Lilith despite the casting of the always intriguing, magnetic Blanchett. Here, her mannered performance seems too much like others we’ve seen before from her. The char­acter of Lilith is more the idea of a noir femme fatale than the real deal, and her unmasking of Stan as nothing more than a two-bit hus­tler is bargain-basement Barbara Stanwyck.

Cooper, solid throughout the film, is pitch-perfect in its final, haunting scene. But del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” for all its daz­zling showmanship, doesn’t quite measure up to Goulding’s gritty original, which did more with less.

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