Guillermo del Toro’s 2021 (HBO Max) “NIghtmare Alley” is a remake of an Edmund Gould 1947 film of the same name (You Tube). Both are quite watchable and recommended but del Toro’s version is sheer entertainment and Gould’s is complex and much more interesting. The critical difference between them is that the 1947 film is the genuine article and del Toro’s is an amusing enough imitation, lacking substance or meaning. He uses the tropes of the Noir era, even to the extent of offering a black and white big screen version. But they make no sense in 2021. (well, maybe they do, but I need someone to point them out)
The two have many similarities: del Toro draws on the original for plot, dialogue, and characters, using the same names. Tyrone Power(1947) and Bradley Cooper(2021) play “The Great Stanton” Carlisle, a handsome and charismatic drifter who uses his “psychic powers”(stolen from a big-hearted carny mentalist couple) to swindle his way to fame and fortune.
The differences are intriguing: Cooper’s Stan had an abusive father and a violent past. Power’s Stanton was an orphan in an abusive orphanage and later juvie. Cooper’s Stan hated even the smell of alcohol until fatally lured to it by the Femme Fatale. The 1947 Stan liked his booze (which makes his descent a bit more feasible). Del Toro sets the movie in 1939, chronicling the buildup to entering the war. Gould’s makes no attempt at chronological clues. Like any nightmare we are without much context. The devil, as they say, is in the details. In this case it pinpoints my discomfort with del Toro’s version. He hits you over the head with it all, spells it out, assuming the audience has no higher level thinking abilities. It’s not enough to know that the geek bites off the heads of chickens–we have to see it. As if the name Lillith for the Femme Fatale psychologist isn’t enough warning, del toro turns Cate Blanchett into a cartoonish contortion of the trope.
Although early seeds of Film Noir were planted in the 30’s, it became a signature of post WWII film production in the 40’s and 50’s. (In fact, the term Film Noir first appeared in 1946)The 1947 Nightmare is classic noir: black and white, shadowy, cynical, but most of all–critically linked to psychoanalysis. Pure noir, it addresses the enormous post war psychological stress of vets returning to a new social order, one in which the American Dream has become nearly unattainable. Crime, irrational self-destruction, and in general socially disruptive behaviors were were complexities rather than the polarities of good and bad. At one point in 1947 “Nightmare” Stan asks the therapist without using the word narcissist (rhetorically it seems) something like: “Why am I like this? Why do I only care about myself?” (paraphrased).
And finally, the most critical difference is in the ending. I’m not going to to give any spoiler alerts, but only if you promise to write and say which ending you prefer and why. I have an analysis ready but only for those who want it.