Bradley Cooper’s dazzling performance must be recognized. Del Toro’s most sophisticated and devilish film noir with a magnificent production.
I recently watched the black and white, 1947 film directed by Edmund Goulding starring Tyrone Power. According to Wikipedia, Power’s studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck “feared that the dark role might damage Power's image.” Zanuck reluctantly agreed to the film but continued to disapprove of his "darling boy" being seen in such a film with a downward spiral. So, he did not publicize it and removed it from release after only a few weeks insisting that it was a flop. Contributing to the film’s failure – which Zanuck purposely engineered – he insisted on a happy ending. Power was 33 years old and the height of his beauty in 1947.
In Guillermo Del Toro’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY, the carnival world is a dark, menacing place populated with displaced people who make a living deceiving the willing public starving for some distraction from their hardscrabble lives. One day Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) follows a carnival performer and asks for a job – doing anything.
Stan was caring for his ailing father in an empty room in a farmhouse. He opens the window bringing in the freezing cold and takes the blanket off his father. Wrapping himself in the blanket, after hours pass, he burns down the house and his dead father.
For Stan, the safest place to disappear is in a traveling carnival catering to outcasts. The one he finds is run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), who takes a liking to the strong, charming Stan. Clem shows off his collection of oddities and tells Stan some of his hiring tricks. It seems the carnival’s “geek” has escaped his stall and Stan finds him. How the hell do you get a man to become a sideshow geek?
While the 1947 version left out exactly what a geek does, Del Toro knows all to well that his audience wants the facts and to see the geek’s act.
Like today’s amusement park’s illusive prizes, trickery and fakery in traveling carnivals aim to suspend logic and engage the audience into believing that the psychic can burn questions before reading the contents and then answer correctly.
We have already seen how ruthless Stan is, so his friendly manner to all the carnival workers keeps us one step ahead of his prey. And, Stan is looking for any advancement.
When Stan goes to take a bath at the home of tarot reader/stage psychic Zeena, (Toni Collette), she immediately seduces him. Her long-term partner, Pete (David Strathairn), has devolved into a useless alcoholic. Pete and Zeena once had a brilliant stage career. Pete was a mentalist and Zeena was his assistant. The keys to the act have been memorialized in a small notebook Pete carries around with him. If Pete cannot do the act anymore, Stan sees his opportunity. But Pete will only reveal bits of the act. Stan needs a partner to feed him the choice words. It is the demanding, essential part of the act.
Stan quickly notices the saintly Molly (Rooney Mara), left at the carnival at an early age by her father in the care of the possessive strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman). Stan has ideas and when he uses Pete’s “cold reading” technique on an official trying to close down the carnival, he knows he has the “gift.” All he needs is Pete’s master code book.
A cold reading is a set of techniques used by mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, and mediums. Without prior knowledge, a practiced cold-reader can quickly obtain a great deal of information by analyzing the person's gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, and place of origin. Cold readings commonly employ high-probability guesses, quickly picking up on signals as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, then emphasizing and reinforcing chance connections and quickly moving on from missed guesses.
The best ever press gift I received was the NIGHTMARE ALLEY little leather book and, considering I collect tarot cards, a fabulous genius set of the major arcana used by Zeena. I already looked and there is no NIGHTMARE ALLEY TAROT DECK. Yet.
Having stolen Pete’s code book, Stan convinces Molly to learn the act with him. Angering Bruno, Stan and Molly leave the carnival and begin performing the mind-reading act. Soon Stan is wearing a tuxedo and commanding the awe of society’s elite. He starts believing in his powers.
Stan does not want to merely entertain with clever codes. He begins to “spontaneously” give a message from a dead relative to an audience member - then faints.
Society psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is as ruthless as Stan but without the desperate need. Elegant and provocative, she challenges Stan, knowing the mechanics of the act. But Stan delivers a perfect touché to her challenge regarding his mediumistic powers. The audience belongs to him. He has definitely arrived not as a performer but a channel for dead loved ones.
And who has more need from forgiveness from their dead spouses, lovers and children than the rich?
Knowing he has intrigued Lilith, Stan arrives at her office and suggests they team up sharing the profits equally. For Lilith, it’s the game, not the money. Her clients confess their sins and she records everything. But first, she demands Stan to “take to the couch.”
Lilith is cold and cruelly pleasant and enjoys trapping Stan into her web. But he makes a fatal misstep – unbecoming to his nature. Was this Stan’s unconscious need for ruin?
Like Ted Bundy escaping capture and heading to Florida to commit a public massacre, knowing full well the state has the death penalty. Makes you wonder what compelled him to go to Florida for the staged murders.
Stan proposes to Lilith that he use her files to ensnare her troubled patients. Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) is one of several tormented rich men and women who need forgiveness.
Lilith complicity is not based on money and her patients are paying a lot of money for Stan’s sessions with their dead relatives. It’s her sense of, let’s say, her “professional curiosity” to see how long it will take Stan to destroy himself. How far can Stan take this illusion?
It is Grindle who demands Stan deliver the ghost of his betrayed one. He has given Stan a great deal of money and it is time for Stan to arrange a meeting.
Everything about NIGHTMARE ALLEY is sensational. Cooper is a true revelation and Blanchett takes control of every scene she is in. Her performance transcends her best performances in BLUE JASMINE, ELIZABETH and my all-time favorite Blanchett film, NOTES ON A SCANDAL.
Regarding the original film’s happy ending, which was a real downer, the last scene is a triumph for Cooper. It will be remembered as one of the great last lines of film.
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