“Mister, I was born for it.” – Nightmare Alley (2021)
This will necessarily contain major spoilers for both Nightmare Alley (1947) and GDT’s remake. These are also raw reactions, fresh off watching the remake for the first time. They may soften as time goes on, as has been the case with many other GDT films.
Well, Nightmare Alley (2021) looks great, anyway. And normally, in a Guillermo del Toro film, the looks are more than just skin deep. GDT’s films are generally crammed with what he calls “eye protein,” and the visuals typically do more narrative heavy lifting than the script or the characters. With Nightmare Alley, though – a movie he has been talking about remaking for probably a decade or more – he is shackled to a narrative that already exists. A story that has already been told, better and more economically than it is here, which makes all the show-stopping visuals feel strangely superfluous, rather than integral.
For those who don’t already know, Nightmare Alley is a remake of the 1947 film of the same name – which is, itself, an adaptation of a novel from 1946 by William Lindsay Gresham, which I have never read. There are a few things holding the 1947 original back from genuine greatness, but it is built around one of noir’s more dynamite central premises, following a carnival performer turned mentalist named Stanton Carlisle as he teams up with a femme fatale psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is.
In the original, Carlisle is played by Tyrone Power, while the psychiatrist (with the very good villain name Lilith Ritter) is played by Helen Walker. In Del Toro’s version, they are Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, respectively. Honestly, the casting in the 2021 Nightmare Alley, like the visuals, is mostly great. The problem comes from that story.
As I mentioned, the story of the 1947 original is one of the better ones in noir. Del Toro and his collaborator Kim Morgan know that, and stick close to it. Perhaps too close, turning this new Nightmare Alley into a fascinating study of why modern movies are insufferably long, as it hits all the same beats as the original, but takes almost a full hour longer to do it.
It doesn’t help that the places where the remake chooses to deviate add little – and sometimes detract. Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle is not a patch on Tyrone Power’s, but that has less to do with any deficiency in his acting and more to do with how the character is written and directed. Given a traumatic backstory from literally the first scene, Cooper’s Carlisle is too much a damaged child to ever be the man with a hole where his soul should be that Power played so well.
In fact, one of the few places where the original film missteps is in not rolling credits soon enough. There’s a moment, near the end of the film, when Carlisle has fallen as far as he ever will, and is offered a job he once swore he would never take. When asked if he thinks he’s up for it, he replies, “Mister, I was born for it.”
Had the original rolled credits there, it would probably be unassailable. As it is, it runs on a few minutes more. Del Toro learned the original’s lesson, though, and does cut the film at those fateful lines – except that when Cooper’s Carlisle finally utters them, they hit completely differently than when Power’s Carlisle did.
More than anything, Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a film that struggles to justify itself. Why this, when we could just be watching the original? The production designs are certainly better here – the carnival looks great, as you might imagine, and Ritter’s office is a triumph of the production designer’s art – but they seem to add little of substance. And for all that Del Toro has been itching to make this movie for years, he only seems to come alive when the ghoulish parts are happening.
There’s a moment, in the last act, when a bloody “ghost” appears in a sequence that harkens to his work on Crimson Peak. It comes after a long span of relative “normalcy,” in which the carnival and its oddities have been left behind. There’s almost an audible “pop” when the moment happens, as the film suddenly snaps back into sharp focus, as though it’s been on autopilot for minutes and is only now paying attention once more.
All of this is extremely hard on Nightmare Alley, which isn’t quite fair. Del Toro has certainly made worse movies in his career, and I can’t shake the feeling that – had I never previously seen the original – this might have worked a lot better for me. In fact, as much as I love the guy’s work, Del Toro has a few movies that I kind of hate. But usually, with his movies, it’s one or the other. I love them or hate them, and even when I hate them, I’m drawn into them. Nightmare Alley may be the first time I just felt… indifferent, which is possibly more damning.
Ironically, Wikipedia identifies this 2021 version as a new adaptation of the novel, rather than a remake of the 1947 film. If it had been that, it might have been spared some of these problems. While the novel and both movies have the same central premise and most of the same broad story beats, the novel goes several places the movies never do. If Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley had followed the novel instead of the film, maybe it could have better carved a niche for itself where it felt less uncomfortable.