Nightmare Alley ⭐⭐⭐⭐ Review by Andrea Carnevali
An ambitious travelling carnival worker with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is. Out in cinemas early 2022.
Director Guillermo del Toro’s follow up from his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water is more than just a remake of the 1947 classic film with the same title – a film that was actually way ahead of its time, starring Tyrone Power. It’s a real love letter to those “noir” films from the 1940s and 50s. Most of the old trademarks of the genre are present here: the dark moody settings, the depiction of the “lone hero” (or rather the “antihero”) and of course the “femme fatale”. In fact there’s more than one in this film: Toni Colette and the elegant, devilish, scene-stealer Cate Blanchett, who seems to have been born to play this role (She is perfect!”).
There’s of course one obvious difference here: this version of Nightmare Alley is in colour, though apparently there will be a black and white version released at some point soon. And yet Dan Lausten’s cinematography with its green and gold tones, manages to retain the noirish mood of those old classics like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity (one of my favourites), Sweet Smell of Success, and Touch of Evil, by setting most of the film at night and often in the rain. At times you can feel the humidity and the rain on you.
Also, being the year 2021, Del Toro cannot help himself in pushing the boundaries further than they were allowed at the time, both in terms of sexual tension and gore: the film opens with a dead body is being dragged across the floor, setting the tone for what’s to come straight away.
The violence in the scenes is quite extreme (people are beaten, strangled, run over by a car… and an ear gets blown off from a gunshot), but the camera rarely lingers on the gore.
As for Bradley Cooper (playing a part that was meant to be for DiCaprio), I have to confess it took me a while to buy into him as the dirty, beardy lost soul, an alcoholic, living on the edge type of lead, but by the time I got to the end of the film I was completely sold.
Whether the audience will be willing to accept him in such an unlikable role remain to be seen, but there’s no denying that Cooper brings a lot more depth to this character than his predecessor Tyrone Power did (thanks also to a more fleshed out script). I do think he’s got a fair chance at the Oscars this year. It’ll be between him, Will Smith and Andrew Garfield.
However what the film also inherits from the noir genre is the love for convoluted plots and a multitude of characters, in this case to the detriment of the film itself. There are definitely subplots here which go nowhere and characters who are really not needed for the overall story. For example, however much I like Willem Defoe, if you take him out of the film, hardly anything changes.
Nightmare Alley could easily lose about 20 minutes and be better for it. But as always with any of Del Toro’s films, it’s the look and the impeccable production design which really leave a mark; the film does look stunning.
The distinctive look of the grungy carnival (it reminded me of the vibe from the beautiful and yet short-lived Carnivale from HBO), the beautifully detailed locations: those long corridors, spacious offices, and dark streets, all of which clearly obey Del Toro’s dramatic needs more than actually trying to represent the accurate period. He is clearly somebody who understands and loves the language of film-making and he should be commended for that.
Nightmare Alley may not be a film for everyone, but, despite some of its flaws, we should be thankful that films like these are still being made in Hollywood.
Andrea Carnevali is a Bafta winning film maker who lives in Chiswick.
It comes out next year. Look out for it.
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