Review: “Nightmare Alley” and the remake of the traps of the period


A remake is an invitation to daring, and Guillermo del Toro, the director of the new “Nightmare Alley”, could never be accused of being shy. His remake of the 1947 film noir is important in its screenplay (which he co-wrote with Kim Morgan) and its sets, sets and emotions. It’s a spectacle of purpose, but its sense of purpose is too obvious. The film’s dominant effort to say something serious about society as a whole seems to be straining the hand of the del Toro director. This prompts him to turn up the glare in order to keep the teaching element entertaining. The result is a film whose length is bloated, literal in its messages and over-decorated, like a cinematic Christmas tree, with conscientious drama that unleashes tension, energy and spontaneity. Its failures suggest the kind of opportunity that movie remakes present and the kind of daring this one lacks.

The source material for both films is a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, and in the remake, the main story remains unchanged. A scruffy vagabond, Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), gets off a bus at the end of the line and stumbles upon a tent carnival, where he does quick, grueling work in exchange for a place to sleep and a little one. – hot lunch. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, he launches out and gets acquainted with quick conversation and quick learning, and becomes a factotum for the troop. He’s particularly interested in a mentalist act featuring a woman named Zeena (Toni Collette), who is fed clues by her husband, Pete (David Strathairn), a gifted performer and alcoholic who ruins the show. Stan, recognizing the untapped potential of the act (and Pete’s little codebook), arranges for Pete to get drunk to death, then run away with the act and with a younger performer, Molly (Rooney Mara), who becomes his wife and assistant. He takes the deed in nightclubs and presents himself as a spiritualist who can communicate with the dead. Then, he finds out how to sell his services to the wealthy and the bereaved, and persuades Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist with a cabinet full of recordings of his patients, to help him. But, as Stan’s high-end deceptions about the rich and powerful become more and more elaborate, he depends all the more – and all the more fragile – on Lilith’s cooperation and Molly’s complicity. . Eventually, one woman is seized with a crisis of honor and the other with a crisis of dishonor, endangering Stan’s proud plans.

The most obvious difference between del Toro’s film and the original, directed by Edmund Goulding and written by Jules Furthman, is that the remake is forty minutes longer. Del Toro and Morgan adapt more of Gresham’s novel (the previous film begins with Stan already working at the carnival, as a barker) and expand on some episodes. In both films, Stan displays an unhealthy fascination with the carnival “geek”, an atavistic performer who, in some sort of disgusting act, eats a live chicken. But, in del Toro’s film, carnival director Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe) details the clever process by which he turns desperate alcoholics into geeks. Then, when Stan and Molly become a blockbuster nightclub act, Stan’s expansive and repulsive connection to the secret world of the super-rich spans a seemingly endless length of time.

“Nightmare Alley” features del Toro’s flowery art of the grotesque. In this and the previous films, he makes the gruesome actions look corny, but with “Nightmare Alley” his distinctive touches hollow out the story at hand, for reasons that go to the very heart of what the remakes can do. . The 1947 version faced the kind of strict self-censorship that was rampant in Hollywood at the time. He removed plot points involving adultery and abortion, as well as blood. But, above all, he condensed his raw material, and in order to make a novel last in barely one hundred and ten minutes, he reconstructed the story by means of simple and precise narrative mechanisms. Del Toro, on the other hand, loosens the gears and releases the springs, creating a sense of narrative space that he then simply fills with more story. Despite a few brief and recurring subjective touches – memories, nightmares – the new film is a decidedly step-by-step affair. Del Toro is free to argue about illicit sex and show horrific violence, but the narrative freedom he harnesses comes with a self-imposed constructive rigidity. The paradoxical result is a film that feels more limited than the bowdlerized original.

The first ‘Nightmare Alley’ was a contemporary story, while the remake is a period piece, but not quite from the same period – it begins in 1939, when Gresham conceived the novel. As such, del Toro relies on extremely elaborate sets but nevertheless more phantasmagoric than realistic. They evoke a past that is both seductive and decadent, decent and deranged. Yet its flourishes express little of what sets these particular characters apart and their particular moment in time, place, and history. I found myself thinking of another film that draws on a frightening fantasy to evoke the horrors of a distressed and repressive era, Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island”, which captures the public and private terrors of its setting. fifties. It might have something to do with the fact that Scorsese was a teenager in the fifties and that by exploring the dramatic world of “Shutter Island” he was also unearthing memories of the physical and mental world of that time.

Some of the most successful recent period pieces include Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” – an adaptation of the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen – which was produced for about a tenth of the budget of del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley”. . Hall draws on a finely crafted repertoire of images that suggest as much as they reveal, amplifying his historical representation with symbolic resonance; moreover, the film’s performances are styled with as much precision and imagination. Strangely, in “Nightmare Alley” del Toro does something like the opposite: rather than reclaiming the sense of time through his physicality, he attempts to dazzle the eye and overwhelm the attention with sets of garish grandeur. , and the images seem designed only to show them. The film’s performances, by some of the best actors in the business, have a generic and timeless expressiveness that suggests neither the society of the 1940s nor the films of this era. Remaking a Classic provides the opportunity to develop drama and its characters in a way that was inaccessible to studio filmmakers of the past. The new “Nightmare Alley” suffers from a self-imposed muzzle, which is not a code of moralism but an undisputed code of narrative conventions. Del Toro’s expanded imagination of the classic tale doesn’t begin with the setting but ends with it.


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