As Guillermo del Toro’s new take on Nightmare Alley heads to UK cinemas, we’ve been digging into the 1947 take on the same story.
This week marks the release of Guillermo cel Toro’s latest film, Nightmare Alley. Based on a novel by William Gersham, Nightmare Alley deals with the malicious world of mediums and mentalists and the victims they prey on. Coming to cinemas in the UK this Friday, it stars Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett.
But I’m not here to talk about a new release. I’m going back 75 years to look at the first screen adaptation of the novel – Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley.
That film revolves around Stan, a barker at a travelling carnival. Though he likes his world in the hustle and bustle of the funfair, Stan dreams of the big time. After finding out the medium Zeena uses speech inflections and a code to hoodwink the audience, Stan takes the trick to high society. However, as the act gets bigger, so do Stan’s sights, as he attempts to fool rich socialites. But it comes at a cost – his own conscience.
Actor Tyrone Power was best known for swashbuckling adventures such as The Mask of Zorro, The Black Swan, and Prince of Foxes. His turn to film noir with Nightmare Alley was a shock to the public. In fact, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was reluctant for his golden, pretty boy to play a sleazy character such as Stan. Though he eventually allowed Power to do the role, giving the film noir A-list money as a product of the casting, Zanuck was still displeased. So much so, that Zanuck shunned it and declared it a flop before it even had a chance to shine (which, sounds remarkably familiar to how Disney is arguably burying del Toro’s work here).
However, it would become one of Power’s own favourite movies, and he received rave reviews for his performance. You can definitely tell that Power is in his element in Nightmare Alley. As the smooth-talking Stan, Power is brilliant. A man driven by utmost ambition and will do anything to achieve glory, chewing up women for his own benefit. Yet Power’s Stan is also riddled with paranoia and the actor does well at keeping this turmoil beneath his bravado.
Power is supported by Joan Blondell, Coleen Grey, and Helen Walker as the women he uses. Blondell is a brilliant viperous Zeena who sees quickly how pathetic Stan really is. Though Coleen, a young ingenue who becomes part of his act, sees Stan through rose-tinted glasses, her slow realisation as to just who Stan is remains brilliantly executed. Walker plays psychiatrist Lilith, and her deeds are almost equally depraved as Stan’s as the pair sulk in the shadows, using therapy sessions to exploit wealthy clients. They are great performances and even greater characters.
Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley is a slick and almost sadistic movie. It holds a lot of contempt for its lead characters – people who spend time abusing grief for profit. If you’ve ever believed in stage spiritualists who claim to see the dead or the future, then this will certainly snuff out that spark. Nightmare Alley tackles the – well – scum of the world who’ll mine pain for profit. Yet Goulding, alongside Jules Furthman’s script and Power’s performance, make it a compelling watch. You’ll want to see Stan both succeed and get his comeuppance.
Nightmare Alley is a juicy, captivating noir romp that depicts this a painfully pessimistic world and those who’ll abuse it. In short, it’s phenomenal.
It’ll be interested to see how Academy Award-winner Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation works, especially as it is released in a much more cynical and critical world. We’ll be able to find out in the UK at the end of this week…
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