We liked Guillermo Del Toro’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY. I think it’s his best film in a while, though I admit I didn’t care for THE SHAPE Of WATER or CRIMSON PEAK much at all, and PACIFIC RIM just wasn’t my kind of thing. Honestly, I still think THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is his best.

This review will now discuss the endings, immediately, because they’re a key difference between versions:

We now have two good films of William Lindsay Gresham’s book, neither of which quite nails it, but both of which succeed in places and are good in their own right. I’m inclined to prefer the Edmund Goulding version, but I have to admit that Del Toro and Bradley Cooper nailed the ending, which Goulding and Tyrone Power weren’t allowed to do. Or, rather, they did it, but were forced to GO PAST IT so that their movie ends on a softened note. Still, if Ty Power isn’t going to turn into The Geek, he’s definitely going to turn into Ian Keith’s broken-down ex-mentalist, so it’s not THAT happy.

It makes sense to compare the movies by their casts. They have very different visual styles, of course, but oddly that seems less important to me. Goulding wasn’t a noir stylist, but his slightly more prosaic approach gave the horrors of the story a matter-of-fact quality. Though he includes more gore and slightly more sex, Del Toro’s design and camera aesthetic tend to dilute the sense of realism. Both approaches seem commendable, and probably my preferred angle would be… what if they made this in the seventies? And had actors who were willing to get period-appropriate haircuts? And could talk fast?

So, actors.

Tyrone Power versus Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle

Both actors are by rights too old: Stanton Carlisle is 21 at the start of the novel. If he ISN’T going to be young, where has he been? Who runs away to join the circus in his late thirties (Power) or mid-forties (Cooper)? Del Toro and Kim Morgan’s screenplay give Stan more of a past, but it’s a past living at home with his dad. Jules Furthman’s script for the ’47 version starts with Stan already employed at the carnival, neatly dodging the question, or almost. Fiona, who has read the novel for me (I’ll get around to it!) doubts if any very young stars could manage the part, and in fact right now there seems to me a shortage of really big stars under thirty.

What we’d be looking for in a young star is energy, I think. Cooper plays it dour, which is an example of the Del Toro film’s tendency to oversell its surface effects, ignoring the value of counterpoint. Power seems genuinely thriller by the power being a carny spieler gives him. Cooper’s Stan is running away from trauma, but what is he running TO? Where is the joy in his life?

Joan Blondell versus Toni Collette as Zeena the Seer.

An unenviable task, following La Blondell. Joan just bursts with warmth and love. Maternal but sexy. Collette is a fine actor, as we know, but seems flat here, maybe because the script is too anxious to push Zeena onto Stan’s dick without setting up a sympathetic character interest first.

Ian Keith versus David Strathairn as Pete Krumbein.

I love them both. Keith’s astonishing rendition of the words “Every boy has a dog,” is one of my favourite line readings of all time. But I think Strathairn has the edge. He’s almost too good for the movie: so right and alive, everyone he shares the screen with seems a touch unreal, underdeveloped. He doesn’t get to say Keith’s line, and the lines he gets instead don’t work as well. But if you’re wondering whether to see the movie, he would be the first reason I’d mention.

Mike Mazurki versus Ron Perlman as Bruno.

Both terrific physiognomic spectacles. Perlman is the better actor by a country mile. Mazurki at forty exudes more physical menace than Perlman at seventy-two, and threat is what the character’s for. Del Toro also gives us Willem Dafoe (very welcome, as always) and Mark Povinelli, expanding the family circus, but not creating much sense of a wider community. Spreading the dialogue to a few bit players might have been helpful. (Povinelli’s The Major is a really mean character in the book, here he’s just truculent, which is the new cliché mode for small actors since Peter Dinklage burst forth in LIVING IN OBLIVION.)

Coleen Gray versus Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill)

Rooney Mara is hands-down the better actor. Gray is good enough for the role she’s given. The Del Toro omits the creepy incest backstory — child abuse is the origin story of both Gresham’s main characters. So, Mara has a character less interesting than she’s capable of playing, basically an ingenue role, but she’s able to tamp down her own interestingness without extinguishing it, and she’s really good.

George Beranger versus Paul Anderson & Jesse Buck (the Geek/s)

This comparison is basically a question of whether it’s better to keep the Geek offscreen, or present him for our edification. Goulding’s offscreen horror is super-effective. Gresham, by showing him, is able to humanize him more (I’m getting all this from Fiona). Gresham has him mouth the words “You son-of-a-bitch,” which humanizes him, and leads the reader away from the pit as he prepares to bite the head of a chicken, playing the scene on the marks’ reaction, which is a very intelligent and restrained way to do it. Del Toro’s explicitness here lets us think ourselves superior to the crowd who lap it up, while granting us the exact same experience, with added moral superiority.

In his glossary of carnival terms accompanying the story The Freak Show Murders, Fredric Brown describes the Geek in these words ~

A freak, usually a Negro, who eats glass, razor blades and almost anything else. Don’t ask me how they can do it, but there’s no gaff about it. A geek can chew up an old light bulb just as you’d eat an apple.

Del Toro’s movie answers Brown’s mystery: the geek is hooked on opium. Interesting that both the full-time geeks we see and the aspirant geek at the movie’s end are white. It’s a very white film. I spotted one Black carny and a Black hotel employee is the only character of colour with dialogue. All Gresham’s characters seem to be white. But the movie changes other things, it could have changed that. Maybe a black geek would be too uncomfortable. But maybe that discomfort would be salutary. Carnivals were places of casual racism. Brown tells us that the term for a dance act performed by Black carnival workers was “Jig show,” and that this was “an accepted term.”

There is a fashion or movement towards racially blind casting, putting actors of different races into roles they might, in real history, not have gotten to occupy. I think this is fine if your film isn’t about real history. If the reason for no non-whites in major roles is that this is a film concerned with actual social history, I would say Phooey, It Is Not. It is, however, a diverse film in having a small person, a hairy person, etc.

Where Ty Power targets essentially one rich old bereaved person with his spook act, the new film offers a few figures: we get Mary Steenburgen, who is the other person in this film besides Strathairn who totally transcends everything they’re asked to do — she should be in everything, and I’m sure she’s busy, but it is DECADES since I saw her in a movie. Welcome back. We get Peter MacNeil and Del Toro favourite Richard Jenkins. Jenkins is playing the character Taylor Holmes has in the ’47 film. He’s good, but his backstory seems underdeveloped or overdeveloped… there’s too much of it for its incompleteness to be a satisfying mystery. Something is just a bit off — maybe in shortening his long first cut (excellent interview at Trailers from Hell), Del Toro couldn’t arrive at quite the right balance. It’s not terrible, but it might be simpler and better if the film decided to make the character less nasty and less complex: his role in Stan’s story is basically that of victim, however unpleasant.

Also here we get his henchman, Holt McCallany from Mindhunter who is just fantastic. I don’t know if he reaches the sublime heights that Strathairn and Steenburgen hit, but he somehow seems to have just stepped into our time from the 1940s. As in his Fincher TV show he’s required to exhibit a lot of righteous anger and he does that so, so well. Another actor who should be in everything, and as he’s youngish and white and male I can’t work out why he isn’t.

Finally —

Helen Walker versus Cate Blanchett (Dr. Lilith Ritter)

Blanchett is very probably lots better than Walker, but not here. In the right roles with the right director, Walker was hard to beat — you really see it in CLUNY BROWN and NIGHTMARE ALLEY. What makes her an inspired choice is her little-girl moonface, which seems to offer innocence. She’s not on the nose, at least in terms of casting. I think Stan, at least this new movie’s Stan, would be suspicious of Blanchett. She’s sinister. Funny that she gets a line about “overselling” her pitch — she’s thrown at us so blatantly, she might as well have a blinking neon sign over her saying FEMME FATALE. It’s not that she’s bad or that this is a bad approach. It’s just more obvious, less elegant, less surprising, than it could be. A shame, in a film that’s frequently elegant and surprising, and with an actor who’s shown she can do almost anything.


14 Responses to “Overselling”

  1. woolworthdiamond Says:

    The one thing I really found disappointing about the Del Toro is he really tones down the wheedling of the lead character from the Goulding version. It’s strange to say, but Power is much more explicit that he’s using his body to try and convince Zeena to give up the system, where as Cooper seems to just bumble into a happy menage. Even with the toned down ending, I miss the meanness.

  2. Yeah, and Ty is yougn and ambitious and in a hurry to get somewhere and he’s really excited about what he can do. He has hope. Cooper is almost playing the ending all the way through.

  3. Neither ending shows the ant-hero AS The Geek. A bridge too far? The Goulding ‘s shock level derives from the fact that Tyron was one a god.Noel Coward even wrote a song about him (see below). Bradley Cooper hasn’t done nearly so much work and isn’t someone with whom today’s moviegoing public has become enthralled. He’s no Meryl Streep. I agree about Rooney maa. Catte Blanchett likewise beats Helen Walker for icey creepiness. All rond a very good film.

  4. If icy creepiness is what you want, Blanchett certainly delivers. I found that too on-the-nose.

    Power’s matinee idol status is what caused the film to fail at the time, perhaps a case like Curtis an Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success or Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, of surprise casting being TOO effective. Nowadays, most audiences encouraged to check him out by the Del Toro version won’t know his rep, and will simply see that he’s EXCELLENT.

    I don’t think we need to see Stan as the Geek: if we’ve seen the Geek earlier, it won’t have the shock effect of Cleopatra the Chicken Lady, and if we haven’t seen the Geek we don’t need to see him now. Could sense the audience around us getting REALLY uncomfortable as Tim Blake Nelson’s scene plays out: it’s one part of the movie that undeniably works like gangbusters.

  5. Love the original, liked the remake, but that book — whew! It’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. Much darker than either version was willing to go, and so surprisingly “adult.” Definitely read it when you get the time.

  6. Mark Fuller Says:

    Did you see it in colour or monochrome ?? The colour Cinematography is terrific, but it really seems like different film without it…….it’s positively luminous……and I began hearing things in the sound design that I had missed……the repeated motif of ticking watches.

  7. Blanchett was embarrassing. I mostly like her performances, but every so often she misjudges the tone, usually when playing villains (eg in Hanna, Crystal Skull, and – unlike most – I didn’t love her in Thor: Ragnorak, where her costume was doing most of the work). I suspect it’s because, for all her fine qualities in other areas, she is just not very good at camping it up.

  8. I wasn’t embarrassed by her but I didn’t like her. She offers some evidence for Polanski’s crackpot theory that actors are mainly important for their appearance. That face in that role is going to be sinister, whereas Helen Walker’s big babyface in that role becomes someone you can’t quite be sure of.

    We saw the colour version, which was the only one on offer at our semimultiplex. Curious about the b&w.

  9. Simon Kane Says:

    I watched it and I liked it, knowing nothing about the film execpt that there’d been another, but was relieved to leave the Burton’s Dumbo carnival behind, with its weird roaming camera – why would any audience move an inch while watching David Strathairn?
    And I was unusually fine with Blanchett, or more specifically, the casting of Blanchett vs. Colette. Cooper’s fist session with her was the highlight for me. I totally believed he’d fall for her. She’s magic and treasure and he thinks he deserves that. As you say, nothing’s subtle in this film. I haven’t seen “A Star Is Born” yet, but I’m fascinated by Bradley Cooper’s self-flaggelating determination to keep remaking “Limitless”.

  10. Fascinating. Hope you can see the Goulding version sometime, they make an intriguing pair.

  11. Simon Kane Says:

    I did exactly that this morning, in fact. Turns out it’s on youtube! So, having spent the first hour of the latest adaptation wondering what the hell the stroy was, I definitely preferred this one’s opening: “He’s got this code, so there’s a secret code and if you have the code it’s great.” I would also probably have preferred the tragic hooch switch (which I think was missing from the later version) if Tyrone Power hadn’t then turned into such an inexplicably unconscionable louse once he’d left the circus. Similiarly, his scenes with Blondell were so great, but the genuine tenderness of that relationship made it hard to see how he could clicked with either subsequent love interest. Of course I still have Cooper’s Stan in my head – as I said, Cooper’s Stan made perfect sense to me (“I’m an Oakey with straight teeth”). And I loved Coleen Gray (I’d overlooked the too-oldness of Del Toro’s version because I’d decided everyone back then looked twenty years older than they were anyway – but not Gray) but it was hard to see her condemned to being the one to save him after he’d passed over a grown-up.
    Post-carnival however, the more menace adaptation-wise the better as far as I was concerned… I don’t know if the look and tone of Del Toro’s forties Americana has been intentionally influenced by the video game Bio Shock, or it just coincidentally idenitical. But it’s unavoidable. And it works for me.
    This. Shutter Island. It’s interesting how Gothic modern noirs are. Maybe noir was always Gothic, I just never noticed.

  12. Noir and Gothic are bound together, I guess, by the Germanic influence. An influence first felt, stateside, in Gothic horrors like the ’31 Frankenstein.

    The tragic booze switch is in the remake (I’m just going to call it a remake, OK?) but maybe not as clear. In the book, he doesn’t find out about the code until later: in both movies, his mistake with the booze has a possible Freudian angle: an unconsciously deliberate mistake that moves him closer to his goal. In the novel he just wants to get the old guy drunk so he can spend time with Zeena.

  13. Just caught up with this tonight. It’s very atmospherically designed and directed (the sets are just great) and much of the cast is excellent. I did not have a problem with Blanchett; as much as I liked Helen Walker, I wouldn’t say her performance was subtle, either. But I really found Bradley Cooper lacking in the lead part; no presence, no charisma. Though he is too old for the part as well, at some point I started imagining Jon Hamm in the part and I think he might’ve done better.

  14. Walker conveys danger when required, but her physical instrument is very different from Blanchett’s, which makes it subtle because you see this doll…

    Yes, i think Cooper is playing the character as already defeated, and that seems to make the story a bit redundant. If you see him in Licorice Pizza you can see he’s certainly capable of energy, so it’s certainly a deliberate choice, just one that I question.

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