Released this Wednesday, January 19 in our theaters, “Nightmare Alley” is the new feature film directed by Guillermo del Toro. But also the adaptation of the homonymous novel by William Lindsey Gresham, who had already known the honors of the cinema in 1947.
Nightmare Alley is Guillermo del Toro’s eleventh feature film. And the first since the 4 Oscars (including those for Best Film and Best Director) received by The Shape of Water in 2018. Co-written with Kim Morgan, the screenplay immerses us in the 1940s and behind the scenes of a carnival, where the charismatic Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) finds an adoptive family while he is going through a bad patch and seems to be hiding a dark secret.
It doesn’t take long for the viewer to understand that Guillermo del Toro is like a fish in water within this fairground universe, he whose each opus resembles a declaration of love for monsters and creatures of all kinds. And we quickly understand what could have attracted him to this story… of which he is not the initiator. Because Nightmare Alley is adapted from the homonymous novel by William Lindsay Gresham in 1946. And transposed to the cinema the following year.
Released in October 1947 in the United States, and the following summer in France, the feature film was directed by Edmund Goulding (who had notably participated in the staging of A Night at the Marx Brothers Opera without being credited ). And it changed titles while crossing the Atlantic, to become Le Charlatan.
A way of announcing the color for this pure film noir where, while retaining its original name, Guillermo del Toro’s version, while remaining in the same genre and without falling into the supernatural, insists from the outset on its stylization and the nightmarish aspect of certain sequences.
Played by Bradley Cooper in the second version, Stanton Carlisle had the features of Tyrone Power in 1947. Either the star of the Sign of Zorro (1940), which would then turn in the adaptation of Witness for the prosecution directed by Billy Wilder, before dying of a heart attack on the set of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in 1959.
Eager to move away from the roles of leaping and romantic heroes, it was he who had acquired the rights to the novel to break his image and carry the film on his shoulders, despite the skepticism of those around him. And it was after filming in Razor’s Edge under his direction that he reunited with Edmund Goulding, and his talents as a seducer fit perfectly with the power of fascination aroused by Stanton.
Played by Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette and Richard Jenkins respectively today, Lilith, Molly, Zeena and Ezra Grindle were played by Helen Walker, Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell and Taylor Holmes 75 years earlier.
Basically, the story remains the same in one film as in the other, so much so that we can easily compare the scenes that the two have in common. But there are several differences in form. Where Guillermo del Toro underlines from the outset the troubled side of Bradley Cooper before his arrival in the carnival, Tyrone Power is already part of it when we meet him and seems, a priori, more normal.
Either way, each adaptation of Nightmare Alley leans into the notion of the American dream and this idea of starting from nothing to get to the top. Before the fall, which everyone foreshadows in their own way: Edmund Goulding hides a clue in the first shots of his opus, and thus gives it the typical fatality of film noir. While Guillermo del Toro opts for the form of the tale with a more stylized approach. And cinephile.
Although in black and white, Le Charlatan is distinguished, like many films of the genre, by its work on shadows, a symbol of the moral in-between in which its characters navigate. An element that we find in the Nightmare Alley of 2021, with more colors. Like The Shape of Water, the feature film benefits from the work of cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who helps the filmmaker create an atmosphere on the edge of fantasy while the story has nothing supernatural about it.
We then think of Tod Browning’s terrifying Freaks, before the film changes scenery. Because the films also have in common the fact of being divided into two more or less equal halves: one in the carnival, the other in New York, where Stanton will use his talents to try to swindle a rich man. Much less referenced than the 2021 version, which seems almost fetishistic in its approach to film noir, Le Charlatan then adopts a more classic imagery, with its costumes, its buildings, its alleys from which a gangster can emerge. And his femme fatale.
Rarely cited among the classics of film noir (lengths and ellipses as well as a lack of scale in its staging are often criticized), Le Charlatan does not lack assets, starting with its end less agreed than it seems. The fact that Guillermo del Toro is interested in it indirectly, by seizing the novel that inspired him, can thus allow it to be (re)discovered, even re-evaluated.
Even if it is anchored in the 40s, its subject does not seem dated and its aesthetic qualities are worth a look, without even trying to make a comparison with the new Nightmare Alley. The only “problem”, is that it is currently only visible on DVD in France.