By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

To preface this review, I must disclose that I have never once seen the 1947 film adaptation, nor have I ever read the book that inspired both that movie and this new adaptation by acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. That said; I have watched and enjoyed several noir films from classic cinema. That pulpy intrigue and drama that comes from these movies is something I very much love and appreciate, as it is usually an experience unlike no other. These types of experiences are often difficult to pull off in modern cinema, and many filmmakers have valiantly tried. However, not everyone has managed to capture that lightning, that style, that feeling of being absolutely glued to one’s seat and mesmerized by characters behaving badly, and doing so with much gusto and panache.

Well, I must say that Guillermo Del Toro comes very damn close and his adaptation of Nightmare Alley is most certainly a film to be reckoned with and one with an impact that is undeniable. Though I don’t particularly agree with some of his, and his crew’s, aesthetic choices, I still admire much of what he presents visually and how he and co-writer Kim Morgan interpret a genre which normally feels more at home in an era that is now long gone.

Bradley Cooper stars as Stanton Carlisle, a man with a troubled past seeking a new life anywhere he can find. After literally burning bridges with his past, Stan discovers some lowly and low key work as a carny with a traveling carnival. He quickly works his way up into the graces of carnival performers Zeena (Toni Collette) and Peter Krumbein (David Stathairn), whose clairvoyant attraction is a highlight of the carnival. As Stan learns many of their trade secrets, he soon realizes that he may have discovered the perfect trade for his personality and talents. After an unfortunate accident with Peter, Stan decides to leave the carnival with his new love Molly (Rooney Mara) and the two begin performing a similar show where they target the more affluent members of society. As Stan becomes lost in his confidence games, he eventually becomes a victim of his own greed.

As far as the writing is concerned, I found myself rather impressed with the work of Del Toro and Morgan. They both obviously have much love for the genre of noir and the source material that inspires this film. Now, I did previously state that I had a complaint regarding the look of this movie. Maybe this might seem finicky, but nearly all of the noir movies I love and respect are in black and white. I have pretty much come to point where I expect this signature look for the genre.

That is not to say that cinematography, art direction and production design of this movie is bad. That is not at all the case. This movie is absolutely gorgeous. However, I genuinely feel that noir is a genre best served in black and white. There is a certain metaphorical nature to this presentation. Black and white movies often reflect the nature of humanity quite beautifully, as does the writing of this movie, and the development and realization of its characters. Within every person is black, white, and shades of gray, and the genre of noir reflects these real facets of humanity.

Now, normally I get annoyed or frustrated with movies that have black and white versions available when the original theatrical releases look so amazing in color. For example, I have no interest whatsoever in the “chrome” version of Mad Max: Fury Road or the black and white version of Parasite, because I believe the respective filmmakers of these movies nailed their looks the first time around. With Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, I would very much love to see a black and white version and think it would better suit the film overall.

Regardless of this quibble, I still very much love this movie. In addition to the outstanding writing and skillful direction, I was rather pleased with the acting by the entire cast. Bradley Cooper gives a fantastic performance as Stanton Carlisle. His confidence, charisma, and natural passion make his character all the more compelling. As Stan’s love interest Molly, Rooney Mara gives a sweet and endearing turn as a more innocent and impressionable young lady who falls hard for her love. As the Zeena and Peter Krumbein, Toni Collette and David Strathain perform solidly as the more experienced performers who already know the trappings and consequences that can come from the con act.

The real scene stealer, the real shining star of this movie is most definitely Cate Blanchett, who portrays psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter, a sexy and confident lady who sees opportunity in the skills of Stan, considering her personal connections with the rich and famous. It is a role that demands a true femme fatale and Blanchett lives up to the archetype.

Now even though, I have my one complaint, as minor or major as it might seem to some of my readers, I still highly recommend Nightmare Alley. Guillermo Del Toro delivers a stylish and insightful morality tale that hits mostly all of the right notes. Fans of noir cinema should eat up all of what Del Toro and his team are dishing out. That is of course, if one doesn’t share the same gripe that I have toward the movie’s presentation.

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