The cast and sets are the main selling point in this thrillingly tawdry film noir from Guillermo del Toro
There’s clearly been plenty of cash thrown at this bravura remake of Edmund Goulding's 1947 film noir. The cast is spilling over with talent; the 40s sets are resplendent; the cinematography is sumptuous. Happily, the lustre hasn't diminished the story’s seedy streak. In Guillermo del Toro’s hands, this tale following the rapid rise and fall of a morally ambiguous hustler remains thrillingly tawdry.
It’s a film of two halves. The first follows Bradley Cooper's Stan Carlisle, a loner on the lam who finds a home at a travelling carnival trading in grotesque freak shows and saucy spectacle. He's a born showman with an affinity for cheapjack mind-reading, which he masters under the tutelage of two seasoned mentalists (Toni Collette and David Strathairn). The second half sees Stan wowing city folk with a slicker, more sensationalist version of this act, but it’s here he encounters Cate Blanchett’s Lilith, a psychiatrist whose ability to read a mark exceeds his own.
The performances make Nightmare Alley click. Blanchett is the standout as a wildly sultry femme fatale who's part Barbara Stanwyck, part Hannibal Lecter. But the actors – and the jaw-dropping production design – are doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Despite stretching the runtime (this version is 40 minutes longer than Goulding’s), del Toro doesn’t find much psychological depth. The characters' murky motivations dampen some of the ghoulish fun, but you won’t have much chance to grumble while you’re reeling from the acid in the face ending.
Released 21 Jan by Searchlight Pictures; certificate 15