The Original 'Nightmare Alley' Is Even More Haunting Than the New Version
Ahead of Guillermo del Toro's remake, watch the 1947 adaptation on the Criterion Channel.
In watching the 1947 version of Nightmare Alley, you can easily see why Guillermo del Toro might be drawn to remaking this story. The noir isn't exactly supernatural, but there is something monstrous at play in its adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's novel.
Del Toro's version, despite some less-than-enthusiastic reviews, is a major player in this year's awards race. It casts Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a carney turned mentalist whose hubris leads to his downfall, alongside a heap of other movie stars (Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Willem Dafoe, and Richard Jenkins are just a few of the names). But whether or not you are planning to see del Toro's take, it's worth queuing up the Criterion Channel and checking out the '47 original.
Grand Hotel director Edmund Goulding's interpretation stars Tyrone Power in the role of Stan, who, when we first meet him, has a gig barking for a mystic act headlined by supposed medium Zeena (Joan Blondell) and supported by her husband, a drunk named Pete (Ian Keith). Power immediately makes it clear that Stan is an unrepentant striver, a seducer of women and minds. In the opening moments, he cautiously watches the carnival's geek act, where a man bites the heads off chickens. His colleague is surprised to see him there because there are no girls to leer at in the pen. "Hasn't got a skirt in it," the guy says.
Stan has an affair with Zeena, but he's forced to marry the wide-eyed Molly (Colleen Gray) when they are caught kissing. He sees an opportunity in these circumstances, however. With Molly in tow, he leaves the carnival and starts up a mentalist act in the city using a code that Zeena and Pete had perfected, allowing them to fool the audience by communicating in secret. His success brings him into contact with Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), a psychologist and wily femme fatale, which gives him another angle: a con game that only inflates his sense of self and ultimately leads to his downfall.
Power, a gleaming matinee idol, is delectable as a man guided by nothing but his own hubris. He's suave but gives his every interaction a hint of menace. Whereas Cooper tries to search for Stan's soul, Power, who acquired the rights to the novel himself, knows the character's soul is long gone by the time we meet him. He's mercenary in his pursuit of fame and riches. Del Toro's new version of Nightmare Alley is far bloodier and sticks with Gresham's hopeless ending in a way the 1947 version evaded, but the original is ultimately more brutal. That's perhaps why, when the New York Times reviewed Goulding's Nightmare Alley, the critic wrote, "This film traverses distasteful dramatic ground and only rarely does it achieve any substance as entertainment." Of course, it's an inaccurate assessment, but it speaks to the film's gloriously unrelenting cynicism, which even a quote-unquote darker attempt at the material cannot match.