Based on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, director Guillermo Del Toro pulls a Steven Speilberg and gives his re-interpretation of a classic movie, only taking a lot more time in telling the story and giving it his unique style.
If you’ve seen the 1947 movie with Tyrone Power (see review below), then you already know the plot which screenwriters Del Toro and newbie Kim Morgan have altered and changed with few scenes here and there, but retained the overall story, even staying with the original 1947 film conclusion. Bradley Cooper is riveting as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a lone drifter who cons his way into a 1939 traveling carnival, helping the carny boss (Willem Dafoe), learning about the biz, sideshow attractions, and their big pull, the geek. He gets involved with Zeena (Toni Collette), a carnival psychic and her always drunk hubby, Pete (David Strathairn).
But after getting his hands on Pete’s “mental code” book, Stan and his girlfriend Molly (Rooney Mara) take off for NYC and make a name for themselves in nightclubs. The story is pretty much the same: diabolical Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchette, looking like Lauren Bacall from the 40’s) teams up with Stan so she can give him the goods on rich people using his fake mentalism tricks. Stan then meets with rich Miss Kimble (Mary Steenburgen), but the BIG money will be bilking powerful and dangerous millionaire Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), who has a dark, secret past that Stan uses to manipulate his emotions with. In the end, Stan’s greed gets the better of him.
The real difference in this movie is Del Toro’s lengthy (2hrs and 28mins) storytelling, as he delves deep into the characters and their flaws. That, plus his penchant for violence and terrific camerawork. If you’ve seen his other films like Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and The Shape of Water, you know what I’m talking about. The script also has a rich texture to it, layered with 40’s-speak of the time; the diner scene with Dafoe explaining how he “makes” a geek is engrossing and filled with colorful euphemisms. Del Toro also decided to shoot this just like an old 40’s black & white noir film, but in stark color palettes. He even uses the old-style ‘blurred iris-out’ as he ends a scene. Nice!
And let’s forget about the terrific acting! Bradley Cooper has another Oscar-worthy role here as the hungry huckster who wants it all. An excellent performance. Rooney Mara is also terrific as the ying to his yang; first his naive and loyal partner, then the confident & trusting voice of reason. For sheer femme fatale, look no further than Blanchette who practically devours the screen with her presence. Defoe is wonderful as the crusty ol’ carnival caretaker, while Strathairn is heart-breakingly good. Jenkins is always a Del Toro favorite and Ron Perlman is great as the strongman, Bruno. Yes, this movie is loooooooong, but it’s full of fabulous acting.
**Now showing in theaters only
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Every actor wants a part to take them out of their comfort zone and explore new heights, and with legendary Tyrone Power, this was his favorite role. No dashing, loving, leading man, or a swashbuckling pirate this time around. Power played against type and was a cad, a bounder, and a really horrible person.
Power plays the vain and self-righteous Carlisle “Stan” Stanton, a carnival barker and scheming con-man that’s part of a traveling circus which employs many freaks, *geeks, sideshow attractions, Stan’s partner, Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell), and her alcoholic husband, Pete (Ian Keith). Together they perform a fake fortune-telling act, but Stan is in lust with lovely Molly (Collen Gray), the girlfriend of Bruno, the Strong Man (Mike Mazurki). Stan has a plan, man, and that’s to steal Zeena’s secret mentalist “word code” that could make him a fortune. Stan even woos Zeena to get it, but Pete’s in the way.
Good thing Pete’s a raging alcoholic and dies soon afterward, so Zeena teaches Stan her famous code and together they gain a following, but Stan still has the hots for Molly and, in a shotgun marriage, they get married. Moving to Chicago, Stan becomes, “The Great Stanton”, wowing audiences with his amazing mental abilities, with Molly as his assistant. But ever-greedy Stan wants more and, thanks to an unscrupulous and power-hungry psychiatrist named Dr. Lillith Ritter (Helen Walker), Stan up’s his game with a new ability. . . “seeing the dead”! This interests a super-wealthy, but skeptical Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes) who thinks Stan’s a fake, but thanks to Lillith, he’s convinced and gives Stan major bucks for a ‘tabernacle’ and a radio station!
BUT! As Zeena’s Tarot cards predicted (and Molly warned him), that Stan’s world would come crashing down on him. Soon his gimmick is blown in spectacular fashion and he’s not only labeled a fraud, but Lillith double-crosses him, throwing him under the bus. Broken, on the run, and a hopeless alcoholic, Stan returns to the traveling circus. Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, the film’s ending is more upbeat than the book’s heart-breaking finale. This wonderful adaptation is by Hollywood’s most prolific screenwriter, Jules Furthman, who wrote over 150 movies (!), many being classics (Mutiny and the Bounty, Rio Bravo, The Big Sleep, The Outlaw, and Treasure Island, just to name a few).
I can see why Power loved this movie so much; it was quite the departure from his usual repertoire of handsome good guys saving the damsel in distress. Here, he’s still devastatingly handsome and at the top of his acting game, but his character is despicable, reprehensible, unlikeable, and lacks a moral compass. Yeah, he’s great! Blondell is wonderful, along with large man-beef, Mazurki, but it’s both gorgeous Gray and sinister Walker that almost steal the movie from Power. Gray has a great arc to her Molly, becoming the backbone to their ill-fated marriage, while Walker, as the backstabbing psychiatrist, is cold, calculating, and just terrific. You can see this movie for free on YouTube! Yaay!
*FYI: Sideshow carnival ‘geeks’ back in the 40’s and 50’s were usually severe alcoholics or drug addicts, depicted as “untamed wild men” who chased live chickens around, biting off their heads, and devouring them for the amusement and horror of paying customers. Any traveling carnival or circus worth their salt wouldn’t be caught without one, as they were big money-makers. Yuckk!!