What is the point of a remake? Even more fundamentally, what is the reason for retelling any story? Well, at the most basic level, the idea of recounting the same stories is probably the most ancient way of record-keeping that predates the invention of writing, so it’s hard to criticize the general concept of reaching back into the vast expanses of pre-existing stories and giving them a do-over.
But we do know how to write and read, so there’s usually a reason behind adapting the same material multiple times. A cynic in me would immediately point out that there’s always money to be made off the back of the umpteenth re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet or The Great Expectations, but there’s usually more to it. Some particular themes might reverberate particularly well with current audiences, an interesting spin on the material might imbue it with a compelling angle, or it may just be personally important for the artist in question to recount the story. It is undeniable that John Carpenter dreamt his entire life about being afforded an opportunity to pay due homage to Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, a movie he clearly grew up adoring. Similarly, William Friedkin must have felt some innate kinship with The Wages of Fear that drove him to make Sorcerer, arguably his most underrated masterpiece. Therefore, I can only imagine Guillermo Del Toro had a deep and loving relationship with Nightmare Alley, either the book by William Lindsay Gresham or its 1947 adaptation starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. Or did he?
To call his take on Nightmare Alley a shot-for-shot remake of the 1947 movie would probably fail to capture the truth, even if it is mostly technically correct. Sure, Del Toro’s vision is grittier and edgier than a movie made at a time when kissing on screen was strictly regulated, violence was severely curtailed and any references to cultural taboos were simply out of the question. However, this seems to be where the differences end. As a matter of fact, as far as the narrative itself is concerned, Del Toro’s vision runs quite close to the 1947 film, which – as far as I can infer without having read the book – indicates that both films are quite faithful to the source material.
Principally, the film follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a vagrant who finds employment at a travelling carnival, where he is taken in by a fortune teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband (David Strathairn), and he learns the ropes from Clem (Willem Dafoe), a man in charge of the carnival’s oddities and its prime attraction, The Geek – a feral man who entertains onlookers by eating live chickens on command. Having accidentally poisoned Zeena’s husband with wood alcohol and after drawing the ire of Bruno (Ron Perlman) who did not like the fact xxx was developing a relationship with young entertainer Molly (Rooney Mara), the two have to leave the carnival in search of fortune elsewhere.
The story then skips forward two years and finds Stanton and Molly in Chicago where they entertain high class guests with their mystic act. After one such show, Stanton is approached by Lilith (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist, who suggests they should start a racket together where Stanton would use information Lilith has collected about her high-flying clients’ private lives to convince them he is in fact in touch with ghosts of their past and swindle them out of their wealth. And – as the noir template suggests – things take a turn for the worse from there.
Being completely honest, the simple fact I had to spend not one but two paragraphs outlining the basic narrative premise of the film should inform you that Nightmare Alley isn’t necessarily an example of modern storytelling. Even though it deviates from the 1947 classic of Hollywood noir in a few strategic places, it actually feels like an attempt to make a movie in a way movies were made eighty years ago, if that makes any sense. Naturally, as far as aesthetics and visual concepts are concerned, this is very much where Guillermo Del Toro’s own artistic proclivities come into fruition the most; after all, he has made a name for himself thanks to crafting highly stylized, gothic and post-expressionistic universes in such films as Crimson Peak, Pan’s Labyrinth or most recently The Shape of Water.
Therefore, at least on paper, the idea of Guillermo Del Toro re-adapting a 1940s piece of noir pulp in order to re-inject the grit left out of the 1947 adaptation seemed quite intriguing. Unfortunately, I don’t think the filmmakers had anything else up their sleeves in this regard and all they truly wanted was to make a 1947 film using 2021 means and aim it at an audience who wouldn’t revolt at the sight of graphic violence or sexually provocative content. It is almost as though Guillermo Del Toro has begun following in the footsteps of another visually-expressive filmmaker, Tim Burton, whose directorial output at some point began looking decisively uninspired. Although it may sound harsh, Nightmare Alley as envisioned by Guillermo Del Toro looks less like a product of genuinely inspired vision but rather a calculated attempt at making a noir with a sole intention of slathering it with Del Toro’s signature visual style, presumable deployed on autopilot.
In all fairness, there’s a time and place for everything and a filmmaker should be given latitude to pursue projects they are passionate about and usually what comes out is at the very least worth sitting through. What I believe happened here – and I opine as someone who for the most part adores Guillermo Del Toro’s artistic vision and enjoys his work – is that Del Toro just wanted to ‘let his hog loose’, to borrow phrase from Werner Herzog. While he might have been driven by a desire to correct the course of history and adapt the book the way it should have been adapted in 1947, but wasn’t because the culture of its time would not countenance something this morally ambiguous and graphic, I fear it might have been mostly a desire to have a play with a noir aesthetic, make a 1940s movies using modern means, and do absolutely nothing else.
Why do I think that, might you ask? Because unless it is a formal (or social) experiment aimed to interrogate something specific and usually meta-textual (i.e. Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho or Michael Haneke’s English-language reimagining of Funny Games), remaking a classic movie (or re-adapting a novel, which is technically the case here) comes with an opportunity to not only apply your own brushwork to the material at hand, but maybe to manipulate the text somewhat and flesh out some of its aspects that either feel particularly important to you as an artist, or maybe they fit well within the current zeitgeist, or maybe even can be re-contextualized and used as a tool to show how times have changed since 1947. None of this is applicable here. Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a mostly shot-for-shot affair that somehow removes the urgency of the original, removes crucial bits of nuance and adds unnecessary fat to bloat the running time in addition to giving the material a visual makeover with a Del Toro stamp.
As a result, this movie feels slow and uninspired in thematic and narrative terms. It’s just a noir story in colour, unshackled by any pervasive censorship that somehow overshadows the main thrust of the story – which should encompass a vicious circle of deception and deceit entombed in what could pass for a biblical allegory with a sick twist – with Del Toro’s penchant for graphic violence. And even though the book probably deserved a treatment that wouldn’t look away from some of the more gruesome moments, it almost feels as though by keeping the violence in, Del Toro failed to focus on the story to a satisfactory extent and lost his way in the bloodshed.
Therefore, I am sad to report that Nightmare Alley is not an adaptation the book deserves or a remake that makes the best use of the toolbox of film noir, but rather a shallow exercise in style that clearly favours Del Toro’s beloved gothic atmosphere over what the story was actually trying to accomplish. It’s a dark and gritty noir, yes, but superficially so. And I’d rather revisit the original instead, even if it was similarly rushed in terms of its plot development and equally slow to gain thematic momentum. But at the very least I can excuse some of those shortcomings by understanding that in 1947 cinematic storytelling wasn’t anywhere near as sophisticated and nuanced as it is now; which is something Guillermo Del Toro and his collaborators should have made much better use of, and they simply did not. Because all they were interested in was whether the movie looked cool enough.