‘Nightmare Alley’ belongs in a noir museum
Guillermo del Toro’s new movie, Nightmare Alley, styles itself as a throwback to the classic era of noir cinema and literature. It has all the elements and atmosphere: shadows, a femme fatale, a doomed protagonist. In fact, it’s a remake of a classic 1940s noir film that starred Tyrone Power, itself adapted from a sleazy noir novel by William Lindsay Gresham. This is no pastiche. It’s a fully-realized film. But it also feels trapped in amber, a tribute to noir rather than an actual example of what made (and continues to make) noir great.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Kim Morgan
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Straithairn, Ron Perelman, Richard Jenkins
Running time: 140 mins
Your tolerance for Bradley Cooper needs to be high if you see this movie, because he’s in nearly every frame. Cooper plays Stan, an amoral drifter wandering about the bad-weather portion of the United States at the tail end of the Great Depression. He hooks up with a traveling carnival that Willem Dafoe runs. Dafoe poisons homeless men with opium and keeps them in cages, and has a collection of pickled aborted fetuses in jars. He’s not a nice guy.
Stan then befriends an aging pair of mesmerist charlatans played by Toni Collette and David Straithairn, and falls hard for a doe-eyed damsel played by Rooney Mara, who is a heroine because she enjoys reading when she’s not in her full-time work of allowing a dwarf to pretend-electrocute her.
The marketing of Nightmare Alley made it seem like a carnival movie. But it spends at least two thirds of its runtime in the wealthiest corners of early 1940s Buffalo, where Cooper is conning the rich with his stolen mesmer act. About halfway through, he runs afoul of Cate Blanchett, playing a sleazy femme fatale psychiatrist with hot gams, a rubber face, and a to-die-for Art Deco office. A plot ensues, and things go south for old Stan.
Like del Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, Nightmare Alley looks great, has a strong cast, and tells a coherent story that works on its own weird terms. And yet it just feels kind of lifeless, an homage to something that everyone but the true believers have forgotten.
Classic noir was cheap and dirty, made on a thin budget. It reflected the fears and neuroses of its time, the futile hopes of a generation destroyed by Depression and war. But the idea of the doomed protagonist fighting against societal forces that he or she can’t control has staying power. Classic “neo-noirs” as featured recently on the Criterion Collection took the noir formula and updated it to their time. Night Moves and Body Heat are infused with post-Watergate paranoia and recession-era desperation. The Last Seduction taps into a generation’s primal fear about strong women in the workforce. All of them are relatively gritty and artless, very much of their time. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown had some historical distance from the 1930s, but was still nearly 50 years closer than Nightmare Alley, and had the grit, realism, and shock factor that del Toro’s movie lacks.
Nightmare Alley belongs in a museum. del Toro art-directs this thing to the hilt. Not only is it too long, it has no urgency, because it might as well take place in a fantasy world. It’s less an actual noir and more a cabinet of curiosities.
It most resembles Road To Perdition, the Sam Mendes adaptation of a comic book, which suffers from a similar problem. We feel distanced from the narrative and the struggles of the protagonist, because the world in which he lives is so far removed from our own. Period pieces have their place, but noir period pieces fall flat, because noir is all about the way we live, and the lies we tell ourselves, now. This is why the Coen Brothers modern noirs, like Blood Simple and Fargo, work so well. We can relate. The noir journey is our own journey.
In that sense, the most effective modern noirs are sleazy little genre pictures like Unhinged, starring Russell Crowe, which opened during the pandemic, or the Antoine Fuqua-directed The Guilty, which went straight from film festivals to Netflix. S. Craig Zahler’s movies, like Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete, are bloody, pulpy, overlong messes, but they also feature modern protagonists up against it, doomed to fail and die and take the system down with them.
Nightmare Alley is a better movie than any one of the movies referenced in the above paragraph. It has the budget and the pedigree and del Toro knows exactly what he’s doing. But you can’t just say you’re making a noir and have it be so. The best noir happens by accident, emerges out of desperation and circumstance. Guillermo del Toro is one of our greatest directors, but no one would call him desperate. If Nightmare Alley flops, as it looks destined to do, it’s not because the public doesn’t appreciate his genius. It’s because he’s not showing them anything in a noir mirror. Nightmare Alley is a movie under glass, and you can faintly admire it in passing.