Some filmmakers get so caught up in the look and feel of their films that they lose their grip on the storytelling. Others know how to tell a good story but don’t have the money or the clout to hire great teammates to help them realize their vision. With Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro has deftly balanced both demands and crafted an exceptionally good movie that stands as one of the year’s best.

William Lindsay Gresham’s bleak, provocative novel has been filmed before, in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the starring role. It was a fluke for mainstream Hollywood, a downbeat movie which gave its handsome leading man something to sink his teeth into.

Bradley Cooper also has good looks but has proven himself as actor of substance and daring in such films as American Sniper and Silver Linings Playbook. Nightmare Alley offers him his greatest challenge to date, as a drifter who hooks up with a traveling carnival, where he cuts a wide swath and walks away knowing some tricks of the trade. He exploits his newfound knowledge in a high-end mind-reading act, which brings him to the attention of a stylish femme fatale (Cate Blanchett) who beckons him down the road to ruin.

This can lead to only one conclusion, and neither Cooper nor del Toro is afraid of going there.

In fact, Del Toro wrote the screen adaptation along with noir afcionado Kim Morgan. He wrings every bit of emotion from the protagonist’s fateful journey down a rabbit hole that holds no hope of a happy ending. Along the way we experience the shady atmosphere of a carnival (run by Willem Dafoe) and its colorful denizens, including Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, David Strathairn, and Ron Perlman. The cast is fleshed out by such welcome players as Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Tim Blake Nelson and del Toro favorite Jim Beaver.

Filmed on striking locations in and around Buffalo, New York by the gifted Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen who shot del Toro’s Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water), the lavish production benefits from evocative production design by Tamara Deverell (who’s worked on the director’s TV projects like The Strain) and costumes by Luis Sequeira (a veteran of The Shape of Water and The Strain).

This is a satisfying, fully realized film noir where the characters are more than stereotypes, yet each one fits neatly into the picture-puzzle pattern found in Gresham’s source novel. We empathize with the antihero even as we recognize the bad choices he’s making… and we luxuriate in the rich art deco period flavor that the director serves up for us. Only a filmmaker as knowledgeable and passionate as Guillermo del Toro could have made this picture, and I’m awfully glad he did.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024