Guillermo del Toro puts his mark on an occult cult classic, finding the monster in Nightmare Alley and filming him in a different light than in the original 1947 movie.
“Mister, I was made for it,” versus “Mister, I was born for it,” sums up the major psychological distinction between the 1947 Night remake. Neither line from the end of their respective movies is in the 19. That book concludes just short of the revelation or confession (depending on the actor who says it). Bradley Cooper’s Stan Carlisle finds it downright hilarious that he is about to become a geek. Tyrone Power’s The Great Stanton only grants himself temporary clemency. The geek is their destiny. Chicken necks are their shared fate.
The first major difference between the two movies is Bonga Cam the most obvious. One employs all the tricks of black and white filmmaking, the other shades its colors in a muted noir. The next immediately recognizable difference comes at feeding time. We see the chicken’s neck ripped apart in full gory color in the new film. The older film cuts away as the fowl is unceremoniously dumped into the fenced-off pit for gawkers to revile.
Here we look at some of the glaring and subtle differences between the two adaptations of the noir classic, Nightmare Alley.
Geek Show and Carnival Life
Directed by Edmund Goulding at the height of the Hays Code, the original Nightmare Alley could only tease the grotesqueness of the geek attraction. Del Toro keeps his camera focused unblinkingly on the brutality, savagery, and pain inflicted on the performer, underscoring the conditions of the traveling world endured by carny folk.
The geek act represents rock bottom. The lowest rung of society and entertainment, the geek swallows snakes and bites the heads off live chickens for the crowd’s amusement and repulsion. In the original 1947 screenplay by es Flavin) refuses to talk about the geek, telling Stan, “When you’re around this carny longer, you’ll learn to quit asking questions.” The new and eager employee who is our protagonist gets his answer instead from the fortune-teller Zeena Krumhein (Joan Blondell), who explains, “That’s always a sore point in a carnival. The geek is one of our biggest draws, but a lot of performers won’t work a show that carries one.”
In the new film, the carnival manager, Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), has a much larger role and details the process of turning alcoholics into geeks: You don’t find them. You make them. You pick up a bottle-a-day boozer at the end of his rope, tell him about a little job acting, only temporary until a real geek comes along, give him a dry place to sleep and a bottle with a drop of something extra, and he’ll think he’s gone to heaven. When he’s hooked, you threaten to fire him. He thinks about sobering up and getting the crawling shakes which come with detox. Throw him a chicken and he’ll geek all over its throat.
The dialogue in the 2021 version is almost verbatim from the source material, except there is no overt mention of spiking the alcohol with opium in the novel. Del Toro and his co-screenwriter Kim Morgan stick to the “blueprint,” and in their interpretation, Stan’s big realization is that he was born to it. It is actually liberating for him because he was always beyond hope and can now take off his mask. Tyrone Power’s Stanton deteriorates into the geek. He is made to choose his doom. Cooper never had the choice.
Stanton Carlisle’s Backstory
When the 1947 film begins. Stan is already working at Hoatley’s Ten-in-One show. The only thing we know about his life before the carnival is when he admits he is an orphan who spent time in reform school. It might be a con or a romantic invention, Power pushes a touch of ambiguity into the read, but his eyes also betray innocent confession. Del Toro introduces a subplot about Stan’s history with his father, and with alcoholism, which strips any semblance of a naive origin. Cooper’s Stan has a troubled relationship with his father, which ends coldly. This Stan is less innocent from the beginning.