The Drama of the Gifted Child
The melody haunts my reverie
[The Oscar thing is on! I’ll be reviewing all the contenders between now and the show; here are links to reviews of Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Licorice Pizza, and West Side Story, with more to come between now and March 27.]
Considering how differently they hit, it’s a shock to realize the 1947 Edmund Goulding Nightmare Alley and the new version by Guillermo del Toro follow a nearly identical plot (but for the sugared original ending, which is as easily dismissed as that of The Last Laugh): In the Great Depression a drifter hooks up with a carnival, and gets in tight with Zeena and Pete, a pair of “mentalists” who do mind-reading tricks but also have an uncanny understanding of human nature (as does the drifter) as well as the gift of knowing when to leave well enough alone (which the drifter lacks); the drifter cribs their act and runs off with Molly, the carnival good girl, to get rich with it, but with the help of a shady lady shrink he goes horribly too far.
Seen from an extremely narrow perspective, the difference between the two films is mainly one of style. Goulding’s has the typical 40’s noir look and rhythm — plenty of shadows and zero wasted time. It also has a script by Jules Furthman, who wrote a lot of wised-up dialogue for Howard Hawks movies, and they put a lot of it in the mouth of Tyrone Power, who makes Stan Carlisle the archetypical wiseguy who’s not so wise — marginally moral at first, less so as his triumphs feed his ego and fuel his ambition and downfall.
It’s not a hack characterization by any means, but you might mistake it for one because, in the manner of old Hollywood films, good or bad, the 1947 Alley is written in broad enough strokes that the dimmest viewer can read the hubris and maybe identify with it. There’s a great scene after Stan and Molly have gotten married and left the carnival. (Stan has been strong-armed into it by Molly’s carney protectors; the 2021 version doesn’t suggest this.) Stan’s blue because the strong-arm means he’s lost a sweet job; Molly, whom Colleen Gray plays as spunky but besotted, thinks it’s because they had to get married; she knows as well as we do that he’s a heel and would have left his options open if he could have. She tries to console him, but Stan’s more consoled by a sudden vision of how “maybe it’s the best thing that could have happened” because now he and Molly can take their act elsewhere and make more money. Molly focuses on Stan’s happiness and tries to feed it (“I’ll be a good wife to you, I’ll love you pieces”), but for nearly the whole scene Stan’s focus is elsewhere, on the main chance.
The 2021 film looks a whole lot different. It’s not only in color, but in Guillermo del Toro color, which means leaning toward the lurid and putrescent. The character approach is even further afield. There’s still snappy patter, and Bradley Cooper’s Stan delivers some of it when he’s conning marks (or thinks he is), but in the main he’s more guarded and at times downright recessive. When he first hits the carney, for example, and Zeena comes on to him as he bathes, he can barely speak, and this becomes his pattern whenever feeling overwhelms him.
Part of this is, as I said, a matter of style. As expressionistic as the milieu may get, the characters default to realism, or at least the modern idea of it, with intentions buried in subtext; while Stan and Molly reveal more to each other in this version (including an admission by the latter that “I never let a man do it to me all the way before — not how I agreed to, anyway”), we don’t at first get the giant relationship flags from Cooper that we do from Power. And when (spoiler alert!) Stan accidentally-on-purpose lets the dipsomaniac Pete get ahold of some poison hooch, killing him and giving Stan access to the mentalist act’s codes, it looks almost as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing, whereas with Power it’s clear as day.
In other words, Power’s Stan is an operator who “reached too high,” as the film’s famous endline goes, while Cooper’s Stan is, for all his cleverness and ambition, in the grip of a compulsion he doesn’t understand. In fact the movie starts with a scene that speaks to that compulsion, having to do with Stan’s childhood and his relationship with his parents — all of it sheer dollar-book Freud, as Welles called it.
But there’s another dimension to it that has been less remarked upon in coverage of the movie: In this version, Stan’s a visual artist — he sketches very well the people who interest him and are on his mind. Del Toro tips his hand by having Molly tell him he could make a living at it, and by having Stan say, “Momma used to put me in contests all the time… I just do it to help me think.” He has no idea, in other words, that he holds in his own hands the means of his salvation, and instead drifts from carney tricks to fatal meddling with the minds of suckers, like an animal that fights predators because it doesn’t know it can just climb trees to get fruit.
This flashed me back to Alice Miller’s books about the relationship between childhood trauma and artistry — and to other del Toro movies like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, in which the natural sensitivity of children (and the preternatural sensitivity of some of them) are not just plot points but vital counterpoint to the thoughts and actions of adults. Del Toro and his co-writer Kim Morgan lay this on thick: “If you’re good at reading people,” Pete tells Stan, “it’s mostly because you learned as a child — trying to stay one step ahead of whatever tormented you.” The 1947 Stan makes much less of that connection. (“Did your folks drop you on your head?” an angry Zeena asks him. “Yeah, they dropped me all right,” Power answers before changing the subject.) But the 2021 Stan dreams about his trauma all through the film as he unconsciously recreates it.
The keynote — or the clanger, depending on how you look at it — is one of the pickled fetuses the carney boss keeps for show and also fetishizes (“Face him the other way, he’s shy”). The relevance of dead, deformed proto-children in this context is obvious. The boss focuses Stan on a “rare one,” fat and pale and stitched all the way up the front, with a big sightless eye in its forehead that “follows you around like a por-trait.” We get a microscopic tour of this specimen in the closing credits, with “Stardust” playing underneath (“the melody haunts my reverie”), the camera cruising into and through the black caverns of its long wound.
Every craft aspect of Nightmare Alley is, as you would expect from a del Toro film, magnificent, and the storytelling commands attention. How deep the vision cuts for you may rely on what your own childhood was like. I still prefer the old version of its clarity, but not by much. I love Bradley Cooper’s acting and admire the line he walks here; Rooney Mara’s a good match for him as a muffled Molly who bears the betrayal, because she knows her man doesn’t know what’s good for him, until she can bear it no more.
Cate Blanchett’s evil shrink is almost a special effect — Dan Laustsen’s camera emphasizes her oversized lips and cheekbones, I assume intentionally, and her performance is pitched broadly enough that everyone must have been in on the idea that she’s a Mommy scarecrow by which Stan is fascinated; when she finally kisses him, we only see the back of her gigantic head moving in. (It’s one of the film’s creepier effects.)
Everyone else is fine, including Willem Dafoe doing the Tom Waits role, but I especially appreciate Toni Collette and David Strathairn as Zeena and Pete. The pairing in the original of Ian Keith — a journeyman ham who obviously relished the opportunity to go full bughouse — and Joan Blondell — a goddess of the 30s who had gotten blowsy — was perfect and poignant, and Collette and Strathairn manage the same effect, presumably and hopefully solely by acting and without psychic damage.