‘Find Out What They’re Afraid Of And Sell It Back To Them’*

Dave Kellaway reviews Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro, 2021, still in cinemas now.


Most people have a nightmare where you experience exciting events but just cannot seem to escape a terrible end however much you try. Thankfully we tend to wake up after the agony and feel relieved. As the title suggests there is no way out from Nightmare Alley for our anti-hero, Stan Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper.

The film tells the story of how Stan leaves a negative relationship with his father and with no mother escapes to the world of the travelling fairs or ‘carnies’. He is fascinated by the freak show featuring a half-man, half beast (the ‘geek’) but learns the trade of the mentalist who supposedly can read the minds of the public. The trick is the assistant in the audience uses words and intonation to communicate in code with the blindfolded maestro. So from the code he/she can tell if it is a gold watch or a scarf that the assistant is holding up. 

Seeing an opportunity Stan acquires the invaluable code book and leaves the fair with Molly to make his fortune in the better paid hotel circuit. He is warned by his mentor not to stray into the ‘spook’ zone where the mentalist goes beyond the code and puts desperate people into contact with deceased loved ones.  As Pete, his mentors says, ‘It ain’t hope Stan if it’s a lie’. But Stan crosses the line. He is aided by Lilith, a psychoanalyst femme fatale, played brilliantly by Cate Blanchett, in fleecing some of her rich patients.  There are some great plot twists to enjoy but as you may expect it does not end well.

Guillermo del Toro, who made the Oscar winning Shape of Water and prize winning Pan’s Labyrinth, has actually remade a successful 1947 film of the same name, directed by Edmond Goulding and starring Tyrone Power. You can watch the original for free on YouTube and it is interesting to see how the new film compares. Although today’s movie is not in the original black and white it is actually a much darker film noir than the 1947 version. Toro’s films are always a visual delight and this is no exemption, he draws you into a world of garish fairground colours, dark nights and near persistent rain. The sets of the Lilith’s art deco consulting room and the 40s buildings transport  us perfectly back to the period.

The modern film is harsher, less moralistic and less sentimental than the 1947 version. Women are shown as stronger and more independent in the new film – both the Molly and Lilith characters reflect changes in how women are portrayed on screen. The violence is more graphic and taken up a notch in new film.  For example you never see the geek in the older film. Stan is given a more complex psychological background. However Del Toro spins it out for 150 minutes while the earlier film is a lot pacier. It also looks like the new film will be commercially less successful than the earlier version. Hollywood studios want their films less dark.

1947 version of the same film

Toro dealt with the trauma of the Spanish civil war in Pan’s Labryinth and issues of racism and accepting differences in the Shape of Water. His stories are compelling and can stand alone as enjoyable magical fantasies but he usually wants to spark reflection and debate. 

Mind reading routines are successful precisely because they contradict the religious and capitalist ideology of unique individualism. The mind readers can pull of their tricks because people are similar in their concerns and obsessions. As the line in the movie reminds us, as small boys we run around with a dog in the country and all have grey haired mums. An observant mind reader can read the cues expressed by the punter (the mark) and relate them to the sociological and psychological knowledge about people in particular contexts and periods. The key people in our lives are not so different to anybody else’s. ‘People are desperate to tell you who they are. Desperate to be seen’ says Peter, Stan’s alcoholic mentor.

Right wing populism and fascism can win support if it keys into the insecurities, fears and perceived identities of the masses. People like Trump are not so different from the con men using the mind readers tricks. Social media facilitates the manipulation of public opinion through conspiracy theories and fake news. Just as in the movie there is a brutality at the root of the spectacle. The fairground ‘geek’ show of the time was made possible by the horrific treatment of alcohol addicts. Rhetoric about the threat of migration to national identity leads to physical violence too.

Films of the 1940s and 50s often involved psycho-analysts as Freudian theories became better known and its practice developed. In the film there is an interesting counterpoint between how psychoanalysis responds to grief, guilt and trauma and how the mind reader operates. Psychoanalysis comes out on top, at least against Stan. Both the early film and today’s version caution against greed and megalomaniacal thinking.

In a recent interview Del Toro accepts the links between this film and today’s political context. He says how he grew up in Mexico seeing corpses. He agrees with the interviewer that while the film is set in the 1940s it is unmistakably a product of our times. It is much darker than the hope shown in the Shape of Water. Del Toro describes it as the story of the ‘rise and rise of a liar who aims for what he thinks is success and is therefore perpetually famished.  We are in a very divided moment.’

*Lilith, the psychoanalyst, in the film.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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