Staunch Test FAIL.
Nightmare Alley is an adaption of the of the original William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 crime novel, directed by the critically acclaimed Guillermo del Toro who has a fascination with noir genres and demonstrating exceptional cinematography as witnessed in recent film The Shape of Water.
Set in 1939, as America feels the anxieties of the Second World War and at the start of the Depression, the opening scenes show Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) burning a house to the ground, for reasons that are initially unclear but clearly sinister. He talks his way into helping out a travelling carnival, managed by Clem Hoatley (William Defoe).
The carnival displays the usual familiar attractions – Ferris wheel, a dwarf, a bearded lady, a carousel, the Strongman, and a nameless character, the Geek, a vital key to this morose tale.
Clem tasks Stan with hard labour and insalubrious tasks like keeping the Geek caged and under control. Stan questions Clem about how one goes about hiring a geek. A horrific tale of coercing an alcoholic or addict off the streets with the lure of alcohol, employment and accommodation, drugged with Opium to fuel addiction, who is then caged and dehumanized, resulting in him biting the heads off live chickens to entertainment customers.
Stan quickly ingratiates himself into the lives of fellow carnies, fortune teller Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and her aging, alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn. Pete agrees to teach Stan the elaborate code he created, that allows Zeena to seem to be clairvoyant.
Stan realizes he has a clear talent at this, and combined with his suave, charismatic exterior and exceptional manipulation skills. Following Pete’s accidental alcohol fuelled death, decides to pursue a show of his own, taking with him love interest, Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) AKA Electra, the electric girl.
Cut to two years later, Stan and Molly have relocated to New York, and created a show for the elite and high society in clubs and plush hotels. Here, Stan encounters femme fatale psychiatrist Dr Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) and she and Stan strike a deal. She will divulge her client’s secrets, so Stan can perform readings for wealthy patrons and the two will split the profits.
Stan ignores his predecessor’s advice never to lower himself to a “spook show”, pretending to channel the dead. You might, he warned, start to believe in your own fictional magic powers.
For a supposed mind reader and con artist, Stan does not see the duplicitous actions of Dr Ritter, and soon finds himself way over this head when he targets a wealthy businessman and convinces him he can resurrect his dead daughter.
A powerful ending to the film is quite poignant, if you can manage to stay with it that long, (I’m not going to add the spoiler because if I had to sit through 150 minutes for the ending then so can the viewers) and it is only the final ten minutes that actually count for anything in the film.
If you are looking for film noir scenery with exquisite cinematography such as the grimy, rain-soaked carnival to the polished art deco opulent offices of Dr Ritter then this film is literally right up your alley.
The true winners in the film are the performances of William Defoe and Toni Collete, however Bradley Cooper never really feels he has quite hit the mark of the character he is meant to be portraying.
From a Staunch Test point of view I did deliberate for some time over debate and fail. But it did occur to me that coercive control is blatant by Stan towards Molly towards the end, who clearly states she does not want to go through with his plan. A single act of violence against Molly from the millionaire businessman also, in my opinion, was not really necessary in light of things, and another example of adding violence against women for performance value.