Guillermo del Toro follows up his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water with this plush, stylish, starry adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley.
The film is some 40 minutes longer than the punchy 1947 version, starring Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle, a striving carnival barker. The 2022 update misses both the seedy spirit of the earlier film and its post-war cynicism.
Working from a script co-written by the brilliant film historian Kim Morgan, Nightmare Alley does, however, retain its sympathy for the devil, even if Bradley Cooper is a little too old for the role.
His Stan Carlisle may be saddled with an unnecessary flashback sequence (where Tyrone merely carried a sense of a dodgy past about his person), but Stan’s vaulting ambition and cynicism is palpable and doomy from the get-go.
Cooper’s performance, which culminates in the best scene of his career, papers over some of the film’s narrative cracks. His character (inexplicably) doesn’t have to work too hard to persuade stage spiritualist Zeena (Toni Collette) and her drunken husband (David Strathaim) to impart their valuable mentalist code.
His fascination with the carnival’s geek – an alcoholic who eats the heads of live chickens – telegraphs darker possibilities, as do the unnerving presences of a ruthless ringmaster Clem (Willem Dafoe) and suspicious strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman).
Armed with new performance skills and aided by innocent carnival electricity conductor Molly (Rooney Mara), Stan leaves the carnival to demonstrate his psychic abilities for the well-heeled clientele of supper-clubs and theatres. On this circuit, he encounters Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett, reprising the cartoonish vampishness she brought to Don’t Look Up), a psychiatrist, a sceptic, and one untrustworthy dame.
Del Toro’s film finally hits its stride with a sinister millionaire essayed by Richard Jenkins and a gullible wealthy client played by Mary Steenburgen. It’s no accident that Nightmare Alley is at its best when hobnobbing with the privileged.
Production designer Tamara Deverell and costume designer Luis Sequeira make for an arresting spectacle, one that is, ultimately, too luxurious for the sleazy travelling show and 1940s hoboism at the heart of the movie.