“Nightmare Alley”, the movie by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro released in 2021, was a real flop at the box office and that’s a pity.

Remake of the 1947 film noir starring Tyrone Power, del Toro “Nightmare Alley” stars Bradley Cooper as Stan Carlisle, a man with a dark past who happens to cross paths with itinerant carnies in the US of the thirties.

Hired as a handyman by Clem, the owner of the carnival (played by Willem Dafoe), Stan gradually learns the tricks of manipulation which enable one to swindle the gullible ones out of their money.

He meets the freak, a miserable man whom Clem makes live in a cage like an animal by giving him opium-laced alcohol so he has no choice but to stay in the freak show.

He also meets the luminous Molly (played by Rooney Mara) who quickly falls in love with him.

Stan befriends a kind couple, Pete (David Strathairn) and his wife Zeena (played by Toni Collette). They teach him psychic acts, which, based on cold reading tricks and an ingenious coded language between the master and the assistant, create the illusion of real clairvoyance. The psychic act only knows one prohibition, considered too amoral, too dangerous: to present oneself as a medium who can communicate with the dead.

Pete dies and Stan, already devoured by ambition for a long time, takes the opportunity to leave the misery of the carnival to try his luck in town. He takes over Pete and Zeena’s number and quickly finds success on the stages of New York State, thanks to the complicity of Molly, who has become his wife and assistant.

Stan could be satisfied with his success but Stan wants more.

When he meets the icy Lilith Ritter (played by Cate Blanchett), a psychologist whose clientele is made up of New York elite, Stan sees a new opportunity for ascension.

Having become lovers, Lilith and Stan rip off the psychologist’s patients: by exploiting the numerous information that Lilith gathers during her psychoanalysis sessions, Stan pushes the art of false clairvoyance a little further and pretends to communicate with the afterlife, which assures him fortune and glory.

However, manipulation and lies lurk everywhere. Dazzled by his own success, Stan ignores all the dangers, knows no limits and even claims to be able to bring back people from the dead. His fall will be vertiginous.

“Nightmare Alley” is a cruel tale about the darkness of humanity, the selfishness and egotism that corrupt men’s heart.

The only people who are caring (Pete and Zeena) or driven by love (Molly) die or die of pain.

The blackhearted characters (Stan, Clem, and Lilith) exploit their peers (who aren’t necessarily better than them, by the way) without an ounce of humanity. Regret and remorse are absolutely absent from their hearts and their permanent manipulation of others ensures them total control over their followers.

Each of them exploits human misery according to their own methods: Clem uses alcohol to enslave his freak, while Stan and Lilith manipulate the pain of those who listen to them.

Stan has something of Harry Powell, the preacher who diverts the attention of his prey in “The Night of the Hunter” – the film noir by Charles Laughton released in 1955. They both hide their malignancy behind a facade of sympathy, while Lilith takes refuge behind a completely professional coldness.

The film, in black and ocher tones, is mesmerizingly beautiful. The costumes and sets – whether fairground or Art Deco interiors – are magnificent. The set perfectly reflects the heaviness of the atmosphere and the codes of American film noir are respected: the night often surrounds the characters and the femme fatale is really lethal.

However, this neo-noir film has a conclusion that is a little more subtle, human (or inhuman, it depends) than the majority of films noirs which often end in gunshots. “Nightmare Alley” is all about circles, spirals and cyclical symbolism.

“Nightmare Alley” might be a bit long but its final shot, which only focuses on Bradley Cooper’s face, is absolutely gripping and makes the previous scenes all come together.

Massimo Dutti jacket – Ralph Lauren sleeveless jacket – Monoprix jumper – Louis Vuitton trousers – Prada handbag – Waiting For The Sun sunglasses – Fratelli Rossetti shoes – Hartwood hat

April 14, 2023