Two “Nightmare Alley”s

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.

6 Comments

  1. Genius review!! I’m forwarding to Phil who has been eager to watch the del Toro version together – now I want to see both. The 1947 original is apparently available on Roku. Whether or not I manage to watch and respond, I’m an avid fan.

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  2. Well, thanks Ms. Nudnick and I didn’t even go into my feminist critique rant. I saw the del Toro one first and I’m kind of glad I did it that way because it would have been a bit more of a slog if I hadn’t.

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  3. I’ve only watched the del Toro. Moody and creepy, it held me for the entire 2.5 hours. Wouldn’t win “best picture” on my Oscar ballot, but I recommend it as a good choice for a Friday night with popcorn and a glass of wine. Had my eyes closed during the chicken scene. Will chime in more after I’ve seen the early film version.

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  4. Good review, Susan. I enjoyed both but agree that the 1947 original is superior. I’ll add I prefered the ending of the Del Toro film — the 1947 was a “Spielberg” ending..
    I think that the evil shrink Lilith, in both films, was the weakest part of the narrative. Though Blanchette is a fine actress, she wasn’t directed well and didn’t have much or a character to inhabit.

    An interesting linguistic/cultural difference is that we needed English subtitles for Del Toro’s film whereas we could easily understand the dialogue in the original 1947. I speculate that the elocution of trained actors was much more important in the mid-20th century than today. Comparatively, Del Toro’s actors mumbled their lines in Del Toro’s version.

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  5. My quick-and-dirty comment re del Toro’s “Nightmare: ‘The NYCynic’s star reviewer (AKA Susan C) is right on the money. I looked forward to watching the remake — had loved “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Shape of Water.” His latest did not please me (except that I was fascinated by Cate Blanchette’s undulating glide). So then I really had to hunt down the 1947 version, which was a much more satisfying experience. del Toro turns Stan the deeply-flawed human in the original into Stan the two-dimensional sociopath. And on and on. Ugh. And yes! Please share your analysis of the different endings.

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