Geeks are not found; they are made. This is the lesson Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a drifter in 1940s America, learns first hand at the Ten-in-One traveling carnival. Ten-in-One is a carnival like any other: A strong man, a contortionist, the electric lady, the small person, the mentalist, and the geek. All are attractions, but only the geek is the true sideshow. Today, the term “geek” is branded with positivity. Twenty years ago, geeks were picked on. One hundred years ago, they had it even worse.
Where do these geeks come from? Well, according to Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro, geeks are mostly returning vets struggling with PTSD and a thirst for the bottle. Carnies in need of a geek check the flophouses, opium dens, and the gutters of Nightmare Alley for likely candidates and offer them the job. Just temporarily, mind you, until they can hire a real geek. But the offer is hard to resist: Two hots and a cot, and hooch when you need it—if you can stomach the role.
Lucky for Carlisle, the Ten-in-One has other positions open. Adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name, Nightmare Alley picks up with a penniless Carlisle drifting into the same town the Ten-in-One is leaving. Strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) needs help tearing down tents and offers Carlisle a job. Barker (Willem Dafoe) educates Carlisle on the ins and outs of the business, and mentalists Zeena (Toni Collette) and Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn) teach him the tricks of the gag. Carlisle has both the face and a lack of ethics for the role, and when he sees a chance to leave the carnie circuit and swindle some real dough, he convinces Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) to hightail it out of there and start running the mentalist scam on the wealthy. The same gag run on rubes in cornfields for quarters can be used to fleece the rich at nightclubs for hundreds. Psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) sees more. Why bother with hundreds when you can scam thousands? And armed with privileged information from her top-level clients, there’s no telling what Ritter and Carlisle can accomplish.
If that sounds like a jaundiced view of exploitation, kid, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This isn’t the first time Gresham’s novel has seen the silver screen. In 1947, matinee idol Tyrone Power brought Gresham’s book to 20th Century Fox with a desire to show the world how serious an actor he could be. Studio boss Darryl Zanuck was skeptical. He knew what the audience wanted when they came to see a Power picture, and it wasn’t a scheming charlatan preying on people’s pain for profit. But Power was a top draw at Fox, so it was in Zanuck’s best interest to keep his star happy. Prestige director Edmund Goulding was hired to helm the project, and cinematographer Lee Garmes gave it its signature noirish visuals. But with one of the bleakest endings you’ll find in a studio film, 1947’s Nightmare Alley died a quick death at the box office.
Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley isn’t as fatalistic as Goulding’s version, but it’s far from happy. He and screenwriter Kim Morgan tease out more of Carlisle’s backstory, making him more haunted and less redeemable—which kind of undercuts the punch of Goulding’s ending. But the problem with del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is the same problem with Goulding’s Nightmare Alley: The carnival sections are just more interesting than the sections of Carlisle running the gag on the rich. Still, both versions are expertly directed and photographed (Dan Laustsen lens the 2021 version), and the performances in both movies are all good down to the character actors. Even down to that geek.
Yes, the geek. At this point, you might be wondering what it was the geek did that was so scandalous people just had to see it. It certainly wasn’t an act for the faint of heart—not that that stopped the barker from drawing in patrons with the promise of glimpsing “the missing link.” “Is he man or beast?” the baker cried as the audience assembled, paying a quarter to look down at a miserable, smelly, soiled wretch in a cage bite the head off a living chicken.
“Who would do such a thing,” you ask? Well, Nightmare Alley has the answer. But something is still missing: The hideousness of the geek’s transformation. For that, we turn to Gresham’s novel and the explanation of how the gag worked. You see, the geek hid a razor blade in his mouth, and when showtime rolled around, he slit the chicken’s throat and made a good scene with the blood. Patrons thought they saw something truly reprehensible and went home satisfied. And the geek got a place to stay and plenty of booze to drink. But then, after the geek was too far-gone to resist, the baker took the bottle out of his hands and said: “Now you do it for real.”
And they do. They all do. Because the geek wants the bottle, the baker wants the money, and the audience wants the show. That’s what Nightmare Alley is. And, as far as Greshman is concerned, it runs through all of America.
ON THE BILL: 2021’s Nightmare Alley opens in theaters everywhere on December 17. 1947’s Nightmare Alley is available in a new 4K restoration from The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD.