Like its disreputable bedfellow the horror genre, film noir is an unruly beast – a term used to unite wildly disparate movies sharing an aesthetic philosophy that is on the tilt and frayed at the edges. From the hard-boiled crime dramas of the 1930s to the softcore erotic thrillers of the 80s and 90s, the most potent noirs are disreputable affairs, as stylishly sleazy as the rotted societies they portray. On one level, Guillermo del Toro’s neo-noir Nightmare Alley could not be more “respectable” – an awards contender with an A-list cast, from the Oscar-winning director of the popular romantic fantasy The Shape of Water. Yet from its bruised colour palette to its spiralling descent into madness and degradation, this is deliciously damnable fare, looking back through the prism of Del Toro’s adventurous oeuvre to the existential angst of his vampiric feature debut, Cronos.
Based on a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham (first brought to the screen by Edmund Goulding in 1947), Nightmare Alley stars Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a natural-born conman whom we first meet torching his family home. Escaping the past, Stan joins a travelling carnival, ingratiating himself with Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), a clairvoyant whose act is based on an elaborate code cooked up with her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn).
Spying a profitable future in mind-reading, Cooper’s charismatic huckster is soon touring as “Master Stanton” with his new love, Molly (Rooney Mara), as his assistant. But when an encounter with psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, channelling the femme fatale spirit of Claire Trevor) and a guilt-ridden Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins, sinisterly underplayed) offers the chance to sell his soul, our antihero leaps at the opportunity…
The monsters of Nightmare Alley are human-made – byproducts of guilt and greed
Del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan cast their inspirational net wide, drawing on everything from William Wellman’s brutal Depression-era fable Heroes for Sale to Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel, which provided visual inspiration via its artifice-laden sets and Hopper-esque, painterly lighting. Significantly they also looked to Antonioni’s quietly despairing 1957 neorealist work Il grido, which Del Toro recently described to me as being “like a James M Cain novel without the crime”, offering “feet-on-the-ground” ballast to counterpoint Nightmare Alley’s more outlandish flights of fancy.
Tod Browning’s controversial 1932 cult classic, Freaks, casts a long shadow too, both in its depiction of the carnival milieu (a place of refuge for society’s misfits) and in the clashes between loyalty and avarice that Stan’s interloper presence provokes. It’s no accident that Stan reacts with a mixture of fascination and revulsion to the “geek” – a wretched, chicken-biting sideshow attraction whom Willem Dafoe’s garrulous Clem rolls out for the crowds, and who we later learn has been trapped in this role via a cruel cocktail of poverty, desperation and addiction. No wonder the geek strikes such a primal chord with our antihero – a man who “never” drinks (Ritter teases barely hidden significance from that word), but who seems to be permanently on the run from his own bestial nature.
There’s plenty of cinematic pleasure to be had in Del Toro’s evocation of beloved old B-movies, and you can feel the relish with which he approaches the theatrical apparitions of the third act. But unlike his 2015 film Crimson Peak, which resonated to the phrase “ghosts are real”, the monsters of Nightmare Alley are human-made – byproducts of guilt and greed in a festering world sorely devoid of spirituality. Nor is Del Toro afraid to follow this tale to its bleak conclusion, happily leaving his audience in a particularly lonely place, without recourse to trite redemptive codas.
Tamara Deverell’s superb production design and Dan Laustsen’s imposing cinematography are complemented by a luscious score from Nathan Johnson – a late-in-the-day replacement for Alexandre Desplat – who really comes up with the goods (check out Lilith’s Revenge on the soundtrack album).
Years ago, I compared Del Toro to Orson Welles, a film-maker who instinctively understood the hypnotic power of cinema to dazzle, delight and deceive. On the basis of Nightmare Alley, which is blessed with more than a touch of evil, that’s a comparison by which I still stand.