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Nightmare Alley delivers film noir thrills through the rise and fall of a con man

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Co-writer and director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) helms this neo-noir psychological thriller film adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel about Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a carnival medium adept at manipulating people, who eventually joins forces with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a corrupt psychiatrist, to grift Chicago's elites. (150 min.)

GRIFTERS? In the film noir thriller Nightmare Alley, sideshow "psychic" Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) teams up with corrupt psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) to bilk Chicago's elite, but who's conning whom? - PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
  • Photo Courtesy Of Fox Searchlight Pictures
  • GRIFTERS? In the film noir thriller Nightmare Alley, sideshow "psychic" Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) teams up with corrupt psychiatrist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) to bilk Chicago's elite, but who's conning whom?
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Glen This is classic old-school film noir filled with depraved characters, double-crosses, and murder. Dark and gritty, it's well-deserving of its R rating, and it looks every inch a film noir except it's in color. The cinematography by Dan Lausten (who teamed with del Toro on the fantastic 2017 Best Picture Academy Award-winner The Shape of Water) is absolutely amazing, as is the set design, lighting, and mise-en-scène. It's just masterful filmmaking all around. It's also filled with incredible performances. Cooper digs deep to conjure our cynical lead Stan Carlisle, an unscrupulous manipulator who's dragging around enormous guilt. Set during the Great Depression, Stan is destitute but stumbles upon a traveling carnival and an opportunity for work. He's soon learning the angles in this seedy, low-rent, roadside attraction. An opportunist to his core, he ingratiates himself to Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic mentalist partner Pete (David Strathairn), picking up their tricks on how to work an audience. When Stan thinks he's ready to take his mentalist act to a classier clientele, he sweeps "electric woman" Molly (Rooney Mara) off her feet and they head to Chicago and begin working supper clubs, which is where he meets Lilith (Blanchette, who does her finest Veronica Lake impression physically and Hannibal Lector impression characteristically). She's all menace. It's just a matter of time until this femme fatale digs her claws into him.

Anna This is definitely a visually beautiful film, and juxtaposed with the dark and seedy tale, it's hard to look away from. Stan is a bit of a mystery. The opening scene lets us know he is anything but innocent, but to what end we don't know right away. He's a charmer, handsome, and a quick study, eager to please and even more eager to make money—even if that means taking on deception as a profession. He watches people, studies them. When Pete starts to share his secrets to a money-making mentalist show, Stan knows he's found his road to fortune. Once Stan and Molly are in Chicago, the cracks in his nice guy routine start to show, and when the allure of more money comes around, Stan has no qualms with putting on a "spook show" (conversing with the dead)—something Molly is totally against. After meeting Lilith, Stan morphs into the depraved menace that has been lurking under his skin all along. It's gritty and very noir, a stunning film in both look and story, and the casting here is perfect. It's a long film, but del Toro makes every moment count.

Glen It's certainly much longer than the first time the story was adapted to film, in 1947 by director Edmund Goulding and screenwriter Jules Furthman, starring Tyrone Powers as Stan and Helen Walker as Lilith. That one clocks in at just under two hours. This one takes its time. Both Zeena and Pete warned Stan never to do a "spook show" because people get hurt, but the lure of money is too much for Stan, who's hired by rich and ruthless Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), who's desperate to convene with his long-dead girlfriend who miscarried their child. Because Ezra is a former patient of Lilith's, she's able to feed Stan enough information to bilk Ezra out of his money, but Lilith has her own agenda and ax to grind with Ezra, and she and Stan are like two hungry, untrusting lions pacing around one another ready to pounce. Someone's going to lose, but who? It's such an amazing cast. Willem Dafoe is at his sleazy best as Clem Hoatley, who runs the traveling carnival. Ron Perlman stars as Bruno, the "World's Strongest Man," who's Molly's protector. Holt McCallany is menacing as Ezra's bodyguard, Anderson. There are a lot of familiar faces in small but pivotal roles. I mean, who wouldn't want to work with del Toro, hot off his 2018 Best Director win for The Shape of Water? This is another Oscar contender, and I predict a nomination for Best Actor for Cooper and Best Director for del Toro.

Anna We'll definitely be seeing this one on nomination lists again and again. Del Toro knows how to make visually arresting art, and because his works are so top-notch, there's no doubt he has his pick of Hollywood's elite, which he puts to good use. Stan is such an enigma of a character, as is Lilith. We're still learning things about them until the end of the film, and Stan's especially twisted and sticky past comes to light piece by piece. This is a film worthy of a theater viewing. It envelops you. Del Toro is just one of those directors that should not be missed. I'll watch anything he does. In Nightmare Alley, we watch the behind-the-scenes of conning—whether that's simple sideshow trickery or Stan and Lilith's larger, more devious plan. It's an ugly side of humanity splayed out for us in a rich and dynamic world. Δ

Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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