Review: Stylish ‘Nightmare Alley’ a cautionary ‘spook’ show from del Torro

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley / Fox Searchlight

“Nightmare Alley” is the stylish and evocative new film by Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro that works as an adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel as well as a remake of director Edmund Goulding’s 1947 original which starred Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Helen Walker, and Collen Gray.

The movie is hauntingly gorgeous under del Toro’s directorship with a lush, bold color palette that gives the film a classic yet lurid feel.

The art design takes us back to the Dust Bowl bottom up the Great Depression in the film’s first act to the opulence of high society New York with its Art Deco stylings on the other end of the financial spectrum of the same period.

Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett get top billing, but the true stars of del Toro’s rather faithful retelling of this noir tale is the set and art direction, production design, the cinematography of Dan Lausten and the music by Nathan Johnson.

The tableau created by all that combined craft and care, imbues the film with a dark, dangerous, even horrific flavor that just oozes off the screen. The film might be the most atmospheric movie of the year. All of that works in the service of the tragic and judgmental story about arrogance, greed, and graft.

Ron Perlman and Mark Povinelli in Nightmare Alley / Fox Searchlight

Cooper gives an attractive performance as a charismatic but ultimately wicked anti-hero Stan Carlisle, who holds a burning secret close to his soul.

Down on his luck and on the run during the Great Depression, Stan hooks up with a traveling carnival run by Clem (Willem Dafoe) and quickly begins to make friends and garner influence among the other workers.

Clem begins to learn from a mentalist act featuring Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete (David Strathairn), whom together have developed an ingenious system of word codes used to scam their audience.

However, as talented as Pete is, he’s a drunk, and Stan uses his downfall to get a leg up among his carnival peers. Soon after poison wood alcohol gets mixed in Pete’s flask and he dies.

After learning all he thinks he needs to know, Stan and fellow performer Molly (Rooney Mara) split from the show to seek their fortune among the high class in city. While to two start off happy, Molly begins missing her carny family and Stan becomes more intense and demanding the more successful they become.

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley / Fox Searchlight

Their act catches the notice of psychiatrist Lilith Ritter who attempts to embarrass Stan by ruining his show; however, Stan is just nimble enough to flaunt her efforts to reveal his fakery in the midst of the show.

This impresses Lilith and prompts her not only to call a truce but also for her to suggest that the two work together to rip off millionaires with their scam. Stan is more than willing to jump, despite Molly’s protests, and the fuse it lit for an incredible but unnerving final act.

The story is lurid, lustful, and entertaining in a tragic sort of way, but it is so faithful to the original movie, that the 2 and half hour running time became a bit long for me.

If you have seen the original, there’s not a lot of new meat on the bone. All the technical flourishes — which are truly great — amount to a different flavor of steak sauce on leftover prime rib.

It’s good but not exactly fresh.

Now, had I not seen the original movie a couple of times, I probably would be much more enthusiastic about this supremely well-made film. I’d likely rate it among my top five favorites of the year.

(R) 2 hrs. 30 min.
Grade: B+

  New in Local Theaters

The King’s Man (watch trailer) / (R) 2 hr. 11 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight

Sing 2 (watch trailer) / (PG) 1 hr. 50 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight

Matrix: Resurrections (watch trailer) / (R) 2 hr. 38 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight

  Coming Friday, Dec. 24

Licorice Pizza (watch trailer) / (R) 2 hr. 13 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback

American Underdog (watch trailer) / (PG) 1 hr. 52 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Towne

A Journal for Jordan (watch trailer) / (PG-13) 2 hr. 12 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne

Classic Christmas Corner: – It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life / Liberty Films

Director Frank Capra’s tale of the selfless savings and loan officer George Bailey is a classic film for any season, but particularly during Christmastime.

Jimmy Stewart’s Bailey really did have a wonderful life, even if it took an attempt at suicide for him to notice.

After being wrung through the wringer by Clarence, the angel, Bailey learns his life of putting others first pays off when his friends bail him out of financial ruin on Christmas Eve.

I’m not sure if there is a more romantic moment on film than the telephone scene where Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are cheek to cheek on the phone, talking to George’s old buddy Sam Wainwright. The romantic tension is palpable.

The movie is also streaming on Amazon Prime, and NBC will re-broadcast it at 7 p.m. Friday.

Holiday movies to watch this week

Here are some classic holiday films to watch this week on TV and on streaming platforms.

A Christmas Carol (1938)

I’d argue that the first version of “A Christmas Carol” that you see is the one that becomes your favorite. For me that’s MGM’s 1938 version with Reginald Owen as the mean old miser. Many critics prefer the 1951 British adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ classic titled “Scrooge” in the United States, starring Alastair Sim. Both are excellent and well worth watching. —Streaming on HBO Max and playing at 9 p.m. Friday on Turner Classic Movies.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Streaming on HBO Max and playing at 1 p.m. Friday on Turner Classic Movies

“The Shop Around the Corner” is a tight, beautifully shot romantic comedy by Ernest Lubitsch, starring old friends Jimmy Stewart and Margret Sullivan as pen pals who fall in love with each other through their written words, but unknowingly dislike each other as co-workers in a department store. It’s set during Christmastime, and it inspired remakes “In the Good Ol’ Summertime” (1949) and “You’ve Got Mail” (1998).

Holiday Inn (1942)

Streaming on Amazon

“Holiday Inn” stars Big Crosby and Fred Astaire as romantic rivals for the hand of lovely Marjorie Reynolds. The 1942 film introduces several Irving Berlin standards, the most of important of which is “White Christmas,” the best-selling song of all time. While I wouldn’t name it as the best movie of all time, it probably is my favorite for sentimental reasons.

Going My Way (1944)

Streaming on Amazon

“Going My Way” was nominated for 10 and won seven Academy Awards in 1944. It stars Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley a priest sent to take over a parish from the elderly Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), but in a kindly way. The film climaxes during a children’s Christmas concert when Father Fitzgibbon’s 95-year-old mother arrives to visit her son, whom she’s not seen in 45 years. If you can keep yourself from shedding a tear during that scene, your heart is smaller than the Grinch’s.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Streaming on HBO Max

“Meet Me in St. Louis” is a musical dramedy about a Midwestern family struggling with a move to New York City. It stars Judy Garland and introduces the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which she sings to soothe her young sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien).

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Streaming on Amazon and showing at 7 p.m. Friday on TCM

Cary Grant stars as Dudley, an angel sent to assist Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) with a crisis of the soul after he prays for divine guidance. However as Dudley attempts to nudge Henry in the right direction, the angel begins to fall for Julia (Loretta Young), the Bishop’s wife. I’ve begun to enjoy this film more and more over the last decade. I would not argue with anyone who opined that it is the BEST Christmas movie. It’s an enchanting film with some wonderful moments.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Streaming on HBO Max and Disney Plus

When a charming, elderly man (Edmund Gwenn) named Kris Kringle steps in for an inebriated Santa Claus to save the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, he quickly charms himself into the full-time gig. The film stars Maureen O’Hara as Macy’s parade director, and Natalie Wood, in her film debut, as O’Hara’s daughter. John Payne plays the lawyer taxed with proving that Kris is the one and only, real Santa Claus, and how he does is a genius piece of writing that I will not spoil. Gwenn won an Oscar for his performance as Kringle.

White Christmas (1954)

Streaming on Netflix and plays at 9:15 a.m. Friday on AMC

“White Christmas” is a 1954 remake of sorts of “Holiday Inn” with Danny Kaye playing the hoofer to Bing Crosby’s crooner. Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen are a sister act that hook up with Crosby and Kaye for Christmas at a Vermont ski resort owned by Crosby and Kaye’s general from World War II, but there is no snow. What will they do? Put on a show, of course.