Nightmare Alley review – Guillermo del Toro’s fairground of fear is a class act

Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett lead us into the sleazy world of carnivals, with gruesomely enjoyable performances and freaky twists

Guillermo del Toro hits us with a spectacular noir melodrama boasting gruesomely enjoyable performances and freaky twists. He shows us that in spite of the old song, there are in fact a couple of businesses like showbusiness: psychoanalysis and crime. Del Toro conducts us into a fairground of fear with his usual love of the fantastical and the hallucinatory, the same adoration of classic golden age Americana and some spasms of body-horror violence. Thankfully though, it’s without the supernatural whimsy that sometimes threatens to drown his movies in twee.

Nightmare Alley is adapted from the 1946 novel by pulp author William Lindsay Gresham, who had a great fascination for the US’s sleazy carnies, circuses, travelling shows and magicians with their weird shimmer of the occult. (It’s something to ponder that, after their divorce, Gresham’s ex-wife Joy Davidman moved to England and famously married CS Lewis.) Nightmare Alley was first filmed in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the lead role, and now it’s Bradley Cooper taking on the haunted, saturnine part of Stan Carlisle, a guy with no money and a violent past who needs to disappear for a while.

Stan wanders into a travelling carnival where the most stomach-turning attraction is a haunted-house show that plunges punters into a nightmare inferno of the Last Judgment, a hideous honeycomb of bulging eyes. Stan finds that the hatchet-faced guys running things can always use people like him to help with hard, dirty work, paying a few bucks and asking no questions. But Stan is a cut above the usual hobos and losers; he’s a likely fellow with a personable manner and an inquiring mind and he’s intrigued by the cheesy mind-reading act run by Zeena (Toni Collette) and her boozy husband Pete (David Strathairn). Instantly, Stan grasps the art of the mind-reader: to learn the secret verbal codewords fed to him by his partner, but also to use his natural observant powers to see what sort of a person is in front of him and pick up on clues.

After a sinister act of violence – of which he is all too capable – Stan marries fellow carnival huckster Molly (Rooney Mara) and moves with her to Chicago where their high-class act in hotel showrooms becomes the toast of the town. And then he comes across someone else in the mind-reading game: Lilith Ritter, gorgeously played by Cate Blanchett, a fashionable psychoanalyst with peroxide hair, a slash of lipstick, a gigantic art deco consulting room and a brace of wealthy clients. She makes him a terrible offer.

This film has a horribly ingenious premise and there is something chilling in the central concept: Stan’s mind-reading spiritualist routine, though deeply dishonest, is in fact founded on a set of truths about human nature which are revealed to the seedy huckster but not to the educated person who might affect to despise the showman’s preposterous act. Every person thinks their background is their own unique secret, and everyone is indeed haunted by a certain someone, someone who is always near them (the bogus spiritualist will solemnly declare that this person has a ghostly hand on their shoulder), someone whom they love and hate at the same time. That person is a parent. And Stan’s mind-reading is, in its way, entirely genuine.

There is a brilliant setpiece when Lilith is in the audience for Stan’s classy show, smirkingly sceptical and demanding to ask the questions herself, not letting Molly use her codewords, and challenging Stan to tell her what is in her handbag. Will Stan be exposed in front of all his tuxed fans? Stan removes his absurd blindfold, fearlessly returns Lilith’s gaze and gives a magnificent reply, with intuition to rival Sherlock Holmes. Del Toro’s film shows us that Stan, and tricksters like him, are a kind of priesthood, a brotherhood of ruined and corrupt knowledge, imprisoned in a hell that only they can see.

• Nightmare Alley is released on 21 January in cinemas.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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