Nightmare Alley (1947) / Nightmare Alley (2021)

Nightmare Alley (1947)

written by Jules Furthman

based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham

directed by Edmund Golding

Nightmare Alley (2021)

written by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan

based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham

directed by Guillermo del Toro

How far would you go to escape your past and become someone completely different? That’s the question at the center of 1947’s Nightmare Alley, in which a poor carnival worker named Stan (Tyrone Power) learns to become a mentalist with the help of Zeena (Joan Blondell), the resident clairvoyant, and eventually leaves the carny life for fortune and fame with his own act, “The Great Stanton.” As he becomes greedier, he joins forces with a psychologist (Helen Walker) in order to manipulate her wealthy clients into thinking he has the power to communicate with the dead. But Zeena has seen Stan’s future in the Tarot cards… and it ain’t pretty.

Nightmare Alley was a labor of love for Power, who’d been looking for more serious roles in order to escape the romantic swashbuckler persona he’d built for himself with films such as The Mark of Zorro (1940) and The Black Swan (1942). His performance is great, perfectly balancing charm with the inner turmoil of a man desperate to matter. The supporting cast is equally impressive, from Colleen Gray as Molly, Stan’s wife and only source of stability, to Walker’s cold and manipulating shrink. And director Edmund Goulding creates a believable atmosphere of gloom that extends from Stan’s early carnival scenes to his later nightclub presentations; no matter what, his downfall feels preordained. Still, the very last moment, in which Molly comes to the rescue of the wasted, homeless Stan, strikes a false note – a clear case of studio meddling in what’s otherwise a haunting tragedy.

Of course, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro knows this, and his remake of Nightmare Alley is essentially a long buildup to the correct bleak ending. At this point in his career, and with a Best Picture Academy Award for The Shape of Water (2017), del Toro can get away with the final image of Stan (Bradley Cooper) accepting his fate as an alcoholic carnival freak who has to bite chickens’ heads off to survive – no love of a good woman here to ease the pain. But the director struggles with making this dramatic moment land with the impact it should. Sure, seventy-four years later, del Toro also has plenty more tools at his disposal; all the technical bells and whistles are there, from dazzling cinematography (now in color) to the latest digital effects. Yet he can’t capture that mood of impending doom present in the original.

Nightmare Alley is perhaps too realistic a story for del Toro, a man whose compass points to fantasy and horror – there are no ghosts, creatures, vampires, or giant robots around. It’s well worth a look… but stick with the original for a more complete vision of despair.

Nightmare Alley (1947) – Rating: ***

Nightmare Alley (2021) – Rating: **½

Carlos I. Cuevas