Nightmare Alley (2021) Film Review

Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro’s Remake of “Nightmare Alley” Disappoints.

A pet project of del Toro’s, he was given carte blanche by Disney (through its division Searchlight Pictures) after his Oscar triumph with “The Shape of Water” in 2017.

Nightmare Alley (1947)

“Nightmare Alley” 1947.

The original Nightmare Alley is a 1947 American film noir starring Tyrone Power and featuring Joan Blondell, Colleen Gray, and Helen Walker. The film was directed by Edmund Goulding and based on the 1946 novel of the same name written by William Lindsay Graham. Power, wishing to expand beyond the romantic and swashbuckler roles that brought him to fame, requested 20th Century Fox’s studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck to buy the rights to the novel so he could star as the unsavory lead the Great Stanton, a scheming carnival barker.

Nightmare Alley (1947)

A Film Noir Classic.

Although not a financial success upon its original release, it is now regarded as a film noir classic, a triumph for Goulding who, like George Cukor and Irving Rapper, had always been regarded as a Woman’s Director. The movie boasted career-best performances from Power and Blondell and a memorable one from Walker playing a corrupt psychologist before a car crash and the resulting scandal ended her career two years later.

Guillermo’s Remake: The Carnival.

Guillermo’s “Nightmare Alley” follows the plot of the original very closely. Bradley Cooper now plays Stanton a con artist who comes across a carnival at the height of the Great Depression and is fascinated by everything he sees, especially the “geek” who eats live chickens in an illegal sideshow – Willem Dafoe has a few fleeting moments as his caretaker. We know, of course, that this geek fascination will circle back later in the film. Stanton finds a position working for the medium “Mademoiselle Zeena” (Toni Collette taking over from Blondell) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) who use an ingenious code to make it appear that they can read people’s minds. After Pete dies from drinking wood alcohol (Stanton may or may not have deliberately given him the wrong bottle) Stanton becomes Zeena’s sole assistant. He then steals the code and runs away to Chicago with the younger Molly (Rooney Mara taking over from Gray) where he performs for spellbound audiences. There, he meets psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett taking over from Walker) a character more ruthless than himself, and the dye is gradually cast for his downfall.

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Guillermo’s Remake: Bradley Cooper

The first major problem with Guillermo’s remake is Bradley Cooper. The part was originally to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio and there are times when you get glimpses of what a much better movie this could have been had Di Caprio stayed with the picture. Cooper, although great in “A Star is Born”, can be an astonishingly boring actor, and, in “Nightmare Alley”, he walks through the picture like a zombie. Then there is del Toro himself, who, despite his desperate desire to do a remake, has no interest in the material. He is most at home in the carnival milieu but even these scenes cannot hold a candle to the magic-mixed-with-horror wonder of his greatest work “Pan’s Labyrinth”.

Nightmare Alley

Guillermo’s Remake: Chicago

Things dissipate completely when we move to Chicago. The movie collapses into one boring, overdone art-deco masterpiece after another. The big problem here is Blanchett’s Ritter. Today’s greatest movie actress, Blanchett rarely sets a foot wrong. Yet, under del Toro’s guidance, her performance becomes a mannered pastiche. She’s not playing a character. She’s imitating Walker playing her character. At first, there is Blanchett’s usual grace and flair, but the pastiche becomes tiresome very quickly. Just three scenes into the Stanton/Ritter “relationship,” and the movie is dead.

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Guillermo’s Remake: Toni Collette

Of the entire cast (poor Rooney Mara!), only Toni Collette’s Mademoiselle Zeena catches our interest. Like Blondell in the original, she gives her character a modicum of humanity and pathos. This is yet another addition to her wonderful collection of memorable characters starting, of course, with Muriel at that wedding!

Now Streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Hulu, and HBO Max.

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