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Nightmare Alley

Listening to their favorite radio show: Dr. Halt-Payne’s Headache Powders Presents: Who’s Bankrupt Now? Music Hour

Synopsis:  Depression-era carnival worker takes risks for fame and fortune. (Streaming on HBO Max, as of 3/3/22)

Director Guillermo del Toro’s latest, Nightmare Alley, promises a deep dive into a world of grifters, hustlers and hucksters. Soare we taking a look at politicians? No, these characters don’t care about lobbyists or voters. Maybe cult leaders? Nope, no promises to put a person on a divine path. But they do like to draw a crowd. Got it! Showbiz people. Almost, but add deep fried Oreos, a Tilt-A-Whirl,  and ring toss games. Carnival folk? Correct.

Nightmare Alley takes place in the late 1930’s and follows the misadventures of Stan, a mysterious drifter.  He’s the kind of character that you’re pretty sure has killed someone; you just don’t know if it was murder or justifiable homicide. Bradley Cooper gives a rousing performance as an amoral man inclined to grifting, who might, just might, care about someone besides himself.

Stan- let’s just call him Bradley, so you can picture Mr. Cooper with those piercing blue eyes and the way he looks good in a rumpled fedora. Bradley is on the move and in need of a job. One night, he finds himself on the edge of a carnival. It seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but a fair-sized crowd is assembled. Strings of light bulbs cast an amber glow onto the tents and wooden performance platforms.

There are sideshows aplenty, including contortionist and strongman shows. Bradley wanders towards the “Odd-i-torium” tent.  Apparently, in those days they still had “freak” shows. People who had unusual physical differences (eg., a woman with thick facial hair or conjoined twins) were put on display for people to gawk at. Oh, yikes! There is Willem Dafoe with a wild-eyed gleam in his eye, lurching about. Oh, wait, he’s a carnie who announces the features, not an actual “freak.” There’s a creepy display of jars containing the preserved remains of malformed fetuses, human and animal. Dafoe’s sideshow host, Clem, seems especially fond of them. But ’tis he who is most freakish.

Clem invites customers to come around a makeshift pit and see a geek in action. Ok, a ‘geek.’ So, I’m expecting some guy in a lab coat working on a radio set or mixing florescent liquids. But, no! A geek was an especially pitiful wretch; filthy and feral. The geek’s act was to bite off the head of a live chicken and gnaw at the carcass. People paid to see this! Bradley and the other patrons are grossed out by what they see, but it’s the Depression and people have been through a lot, so no one screams or faints.

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Pleased to offer his crush the latest catalog for Dustbowl Fashions

Down-on-his-luck Bradley approaches creepy Clem and asks about a job. He’s hired as a roustabout for like, a dollar a week and a biscuit a day. Bradley gets straight to work taking apart the carnival tents. This looks harder than when he was miming drunken stumbling on stage with Lady Gaga in A Star is Born. We know that the Hollywood star is in good shape because he probably has a personal trainer and his own gym, but in these noir-ish movies the guys get fit from doing things like running along train tracks to jump onto a box car or doing pushups in their jail cells when they are picked up for vagrancy.

There are some strange things about this carnival. For one, they keep breaking down and putting up the carnival, but instead of moving from town to town, it looks like the same field every time. Yes, Disney and Universal can draw customers non-stop, but the same folks can’t afford to pony up a nickel every week, no matter how much they might want to take another look around the Odd-i-torium. What kind of business model is this?

Bradley is introduced to the carnival owners like he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. Why they haven’t had such a looker here since Diego Luna (or someone who looked like him) was running the cotton candy machine a couple years before. In fact, not to gossip, but Mrs. Carnival Boss- Lady (Toni Collete) is particularly thirsty for Bradley. She and Mr. Carnival Boss-Man (David Strathairn) live in a little cottage near the carnival while all the other carnies live in old “gypsy wagons” or tents. The husband is an alcoholic and often busy doting on his pet rabbit. When he is busy wandering around outside looking for liquor, his wife gives Bradley a bath and doesn’t bother to ask whether he’d prefer to wash his own equipment. I bet the rabbit had an inkling of what was going on and discreetly hopped into the other room.

Bradley is a smooth operator, so he quickly sets about making acquaintances with the carnies and looking for an angle.  He spies an attractive sideshow talent, Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act consists of her channeling electricity though her body and living to tell the tale. She tells Bradley that she built up tolerance for the voltage gradually. This seems suspect. Note to self: Don’t try this. Bradley begins to woo her in earnest — so keep your eyes open, Joaquin Phoenix. You may have an Oscar and PETA bonafides, but Bradley Cooper is Bradley Cooper.

Asking the new carnie if he’d like a bottle of rotgut brew or cesspool gin

After a while, you are lulled into an eerie daze what with all the dark nights punctuated by glowing carnival lights and hypnotic carrousel music. But those nightmarish sideshow acts… Get me out of here, you start to think. Rest assured, you are not the only one who longs for daylight and a break from the carnie folk. Bradley has big plans…

Bradley puts together a polished act in which he is a mentalist, gliding around in a tux among the patrons at a ritzy dinner club, he divines the content of women’s purses and people’s addresses. He’s learned the tricks of the trade at the carnival. But he ventures into an area that Molly, his carnie sweetheart, had warned him against: “spook” shows wherein the performer communicates with people who have passed on. But Bradley sees a chance to earn a jackpot when a rich man wants to hire him to contact a dearly departed ex.

The second act of Nightmare Alley pours on the noir when scary Cate Blanchett as scary Lilith approaches Bradley after a show and tells him they might be able to help each other. Watch out, because she might be even meaner than one of Cate’s former characters, Hela, the Goddess of Death in Thor: Ragnarok.

Here Cate/Lilith is a successful career woman with no professional ethics and a stunning art deco-style office. Cate complements her to-die-for wardrobe with a dainty gun in her purse. It’s hard to tell which one of the schemers will get in over their head as Bradley masterminds a scam on the rich guy. Before long they are reciting noir-ish dialogue, like Bradley informing Cate that he knows she is no good because he is no good. Then they make out. Another time he gets hot under the collar when she gets under his skin and yells: I know who I am: a hustler!

Things might have been unsavory at the carnival, but when the police and hired goons start following Bradley, it seems he’d be better off there. Especially if the work includes that one biscuit a day offer. And if his sleeping pallet is far from Willem Dafoe and his Odd-i-torium.

P.S. Source material for Nightmare Alley is the same-titled 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham which was made into a movie the following year and starred Tyrone Power in the lead role.

Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:

Grade:   B

Cut to the Chase: Lots of credit to the director, director of photography, costume and set designers for putting together a great creepy vibe & Bradley Cooper gives a strong performance.  But at an unnecessarily long 2 & 1/2 hours, the film feels dragged out.

Humor Highlight:  Cate Blanchett as the icy & wily Lilith.

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