Nightmare Alley fully immerses the viewer in its late-1930’s/early-1940’s world. The film’s settings are realized via vivid detail, starting with the traveling carnival (there’s an early scene in which protagonist Stanton Carlisle [Bradley Cooper] pursues the troupe’s escaped geek through a funhouse attraction that you know director Guillermo del Toro just reveled in creating). These carnival scenes–with their rich reds and bright lights set against a bruised-sky backdrop–benefit the most from the remake’s filming in Technicolor. Conversely, the film noir aura gets diminished somewhat (but perhaps will be restored by the promised black-and-white cut of the film).
This version is fairly faithful to the 1947 original starring Tyrone Power, in terms of both plot and character arc (Stan’s journey from carny to conning medium to spook racketeer). But it also emulates the first film in its failure to make use of the “nightmare alley” dream-visions that are so central to William Lindsay Gresham’s source novel. Considering del Toro’s roots in horror, the exclusion of this haunting influence on Stan’s character is at once surprising and disappointing.
The Nightmare Alley of 2021 is a very cold film, and not just because of its icy femme fatale Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) and its wintry New York scenes where snow seems perpetually falling. There’s a slow burn to the proceedings, as del Toro opts for very deliberate (yet never boring) pacing. The action no doubt speeds up towards the film’s conclusion, as Stan’s grandest con game goes spectacularly awry, but even these climactic moments do not play out with as much urgency as they might have (comparing them to their counterparts in the novel). The noir sense of a man caught in an ever-tightening and inescapable grip of bad fortune arguably gets underdeveloped here. Still, this does not lessen the devastating impact of the closing scene, played with tragic magnificence by Cooper.
Make no mistake: Nightmare Alley is a gorgeously crafted film, filled with stunning visuals and strong performances. But as such a polished Hollywood effort, it lacks the grittiness of the 1947 original and definitely the seediness of the Gresham novel. Absorbing and entertaining, Nightmare Alley nevertheless falls short of the greatness that seemed in the cards given the project’s assemblage of talent, both in front of and behind the lens.