The Shape of Noir
If you're one of those people who takes their cinema seriously, sooner or later you develop a list of directors who you follow – you keep an eye out for a new film and do your best to get to see it. Sometimes, though, you find yourself having seen most of someone's filmography without having consciously made an effort to. So it is with Guillermo del Toro and I – I always feel slightly smug about having gone along to del Toro's debut film, Cronos, at the art house in Hull over 25 years ago. Didn't see Mimic or The Devil's Backbone, I admit, but after that I've pretty much seen the lot, with the exception of Crimson Peak. This is usually the point at which I mention my regret at the del Toro films I haven't seen, because they haven't been made – his take on the Hobbit trilogy, and his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.
Having won Best Picture for his last film, The Shape of Water, you might have expected that the world would have been at del Toro's feet and he would finally have managed to persuade a major studio to finance the Lovecraft movie. But no. (The latest word seems to be that the director is looking to do a version of the story with Netflix.) Considering that his past work has been nothing if not eclectic – it includes an idiosyncratic take on the vampire myth, one of the best Marvel Comics adaptations of the 2000s, a magic-realist fable about the Spanish Civil War and a big-budget homage to Japanese tokusatsu movies – it's pushing it to describe any new project of his as an unexpected choice, but Nightmare Alley very nearly qualifies.
Nightmare Alley started life as a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham; the 1947 film adaptation starring Tyrone Power is not especially well-regarded or well-known – I had no awareness of it until the advertising for the new movie started to appear. Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, whom we first meet burying a body under the floors of a remote farmhouse, which he then proceeds to burn down. Clearly he is a man with a Past. He leaves all of this far behind and travels across the country, eventually finding himself drawn to the bright lights and questionable pleasures of a travelling carnival.
Carlisle persuades the proprietor of the carny, Clem (Willem Dafoe), to give him a job, and he makes friends amongst his new co-workers – fortune-teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner, alcoholic former mind-reader Pete (David Strathairn). He also finds himself very much drawn to the carnival's 'electric girl', Molly (Rooney Mara). Carlisle's quick wit and natural savvy leads him to quickly discover many of the dark secrets on which the functioning of a carnival is based, but one eludes him – Pete's old code-book, the basis of a potentially brilliant and lucrative act. Pete refuses to share it, insisting it is dangerous – successful mentalists invariably start to believe they really have special gifts, which inevitably results in a sorry downfall. But that won't happen to Carlisle – will it?
As I mentioned, virtually all of del Toro's past projects have been tied to the horror and fantasy genres one way or another, so it is a little unusual to find him at the helm of a psychological thriller with a distinctly noirish edge to it (indeed, a special edition of Nightmare Alley in black and white played a few engagements just to emphasise the connection). However, this is a thriller with particularly grotesque and macabre elements to it – the story itself is a cautionary tale of hubris and nemesis, the dark side of human nature and the underbelly of the entertainment industry, but del Toro's handling of it takes it right to the edge of being an actual horror story in earnest.
Certainly, in the carny-set portion of the story, which makes up the first half of the film, there are various subtle references to Tod Browning's Freaks, almost as you might expect, but these take the form of half-glimpsed things in pits and cages and assorted bottled nasties, rather than the actual human deformities so prominent in the 1932 film. It feels very much like a gothic melodrama, populated by all the stock characters you might expect – though brought to life with great skill by script and performers.
Only in the second act of the story does it really begin to resemble a film noir in earnest – Carlisle finds himself moving in higher echelons of society, only to find that the possession of wealth and taste does not necessary make their owners any less flawed or morally compromised. Here we find Cate Blanchett, seemingly channeling Veronica Lake as she gives a magnificent performance as a crooked shrink, and a rather scary Richard Jenkins as a millionaire with a dark past. It seems like there's little to connect the two parts of the story, but this is a smartly structured script – the first half is carefully setting up everything that will happen later. The result is a film which develops a powerful sense of its own inevitable momentum – you know that things are going to go wrong, and go wrong bloodily, and the canny viewer will likely also be able to figure out well in advance what the final pay-off of the film is.
Del Toro handles proceedings with his usual powerful visual sense and aptitude for atmosphere, and the film is well-played by its ensemble. In some ways it does resemble a traditional awards-season studio movie – a lavish period-set adaptation with an all-star cast, and nobody taking an extended nap or having sex with a car – but it also has the slightly askew feel to it of the director's other work, as well as being a skillful genre pastiche. On paper it sounds like an oddity more than anything else, a coming together of various talents, ideas, and sources that don't sounds especially cohesive. But the result is a film which is always striking to look at, and quickly becomes an enthralling, if dark, story. Del Toro's great achievement with The Shape of Water was to dress up an obviously derivative fantasy-horror story in such arty trappings that the academy voters forgot they were giving the Best Picture Oscar to a genre movie. I could imagine something similar happening with this movie too.
Also This Week...
...Kenneth Branagh has clearly got bored of waiting for the studio to finally release Death on the Nile, and gone ahead with his own (rather lower-budget) film Belfast instead. Not much scope for confusion between the two – this is a small-scale, obviously very personal film about what it felt like to grow up in Belfast at the end of the 1960s, with the Troubles on the horizon, and with one's family contemplating a move to somewhere less volatile.
The film works better as a bittersweet one-boy's-life comedy drama than a film with anything particularly new or insightful to say about the Northern Irish situation, but it is engaging, mostly well-played and often very funny. Still probably not Branagh's best movie, but clearly one which is from the heart.