“Nightmares are a bad habit…. But a good creative force.”
—Jorge Luis Borges
If Diane Arbus and Otto Preminger had had a love child, it would be the 1946 novel Nightmare Alley. A dark masterpiece by a little-known writer named William Lindsay Gresham, the book spawned an early film version, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. Now, 75 years after the novel first appeared, Guillermo del Toro has given us a deeper and more faithful adaptation of Gresham’s disturbing look at carny life, hucksters, and confidence scams.
Del Toro, the Academy Award–winning director of The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth, has, with his co-writer and wife, Kim Morgan, re-awakened the gritty novel for our own perilous time, infusing it with Gresham’s troubled and searching soul. Del Toro and Morgan have kept close to the novel, using its slang and its fateful ending, which was softened in the 1947 adaptation.
Released shortly before Christmas, Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light is now being re-introduced in select theaters across Los Angeles in glorious black and white. “The film has a different weight in black and white. It becomes grittier, more cautionary, and … seduces in a different way,” del Toro says from Los Angeles. “I was delighted when Searchlight allowed me to release both my dream versions.”
When asked if he’d always intended to film the movie both ways, he answered, “Halfway through the shoot, I began experimenting with that idea. During the six-month pandemic pause, it became a path for me. We were always—always—making a ‘black-and-white film in color,’ by which we meant that we were doing a light-and-shadow play that would have been at home with any golden-era cinematographer, but with the color layer added on top.”
Few American writers have had a more noir-ish life than Gresham has. “The deeper you dig into his life,” noted del Toro, “the deeper you see biographical trails in the writing.” Born in Baltimore in 1909 and raised in New York’s Washington Heights, Gresham grew up fascinated by carnivals and Coney Island sideshows, magicians and escape artists.
He idolized Harry Houdini and later wrote a well-received book about the great escapologist (Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls, 1959). As a boy, he and his pals ran off to watch The Master Mystery in a local theater, a silent-movie serial starring Houdini as a Department of Justice agent. A youthful Gresham even tried out one of Houdini’s rope tricks, nearly strangling himself.
He wandered from job to job in his early years, mostly in carnivals and circuses, where he performed as a mentalist and a knife thrower. Later on, he was a secretary in a private-eye’s office, a typewriter salesman—even a Greenwich Village folk singer—until he drifted into editing and writing, working for true-crime pulp magazines before publishing his first novel, Nightmare Alley, in 1946.
It’s a book perhaps best defined by its admirers, such as Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. More recently, the late writer Nick Tosches wrote an enthusiastic introduction to the 2010 New York Review Books Classics reprint. (Tosches spent years working on a book about Gresham, which has yet to be published.)
The cast of del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is sublime. Bradley Cooper is compelling as the disillusioned illusionist Stanton Carlisle; Cate Blanchett terrifies as the femme fatale, Dr. Lilith Ritter; Toni Collette and David Strathairn embody Zeena and Peter, the mentalist team at the end of their game, with humanity and pathos. As Clem, the carnival manager, Willem Dafoe exudes menace.
Few American writers have had a more noir-ish life than Gresham has. “The deeper you dig into his life,” noted del Toro, “the deeper you see biographical trails in the writing.”
In his carny barker’s spiel, Clem insists the jars of deformed creatures in his “Odd-I-Torium” displays are “for educational purposes only.” Central among his treasures is a stillborn infant with one eye in the middle of its forehead, whose lifeless gaze serves as a kind of motif—another mirror in the Hall of Mirrors, which carries the warning, “Let the mirrors show you who you are.”
Ron Perlman is suitably surly but all too human as Bruno, the strongman whose knees are giving way. He protects beautiful Molly (Rooney Mara), the “electric girl,” out of loyalty to her deceased father, and—like the monster in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast—out of love. In the 1947 film, the part of Bruno was played by the Ukrainian-American heavyweight wrestler Mike Mazurki. Both portrayals remind us of Mazurki’s punch-drunk lunkhead Moose Malloy in love with his lost girl, Velma, in Murder, My Sweet, adapted from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely.
Carnival themes were often a feature of Depression-era movies, chief among them Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), which anticipated Diane Arbus’s interest in circus folk by 40 years. It’s still a shocking and unsettling film, populated by circus-sideshow performers who, as Arbus once said, “were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” But more than that, they challenge the idea of a benign creator, and they force us to look into the heart of heartless, wanton nature.
Nightmare Alley is a film steeped in the history of the movies. Del Toro, in fact, asked Cooper and Blanchett to study Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor’s dangerous relationship in Born to Kill. Stan’s attempted asphyxiation of Lilith with a telephone cord was inspired by the strangling scene in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour. And Lilith evokes the endlessly scheming Lizabeth Scott in Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears, who proves herself tougher and more ruthless than any of the men around her.
Many of the movies evoked by Nightmare Alley have one thing in common. They are America watching itself, appalled by its ugliness but delighted by flashes of beauty: Sterling Hayden looking on helplessly as his stolen loot flutters away in the exhaust of a waiting plane in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing; hypnotist José Ferrer as Dr. Korvo, hiding his blackmailed patients’ recorded sessions in Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool; Marilyn Monroe teetering in spiked heels at the base of the falls in the lushly beautiful Niagara, directed by Henry Hathaway.
There’s something uniquely beautiful about black-and-white film, which serves del Toro’s vision perfectly—witness the thrilling shot of Stan helping to take down the main tent in a lashing downpour. Carnival folk sojourning in their muddy, ramshackle wagons evoke John Ford’s film of The Grapes of Wrath, men and women with sunken faces and bad teeth leaving Oklahoma for California, slogging on in search of the dream of a better life. “You’re nothing but an Okie with straight teeth,” Lilith tells Stan in their final confrontation.
A grifter sees everybody either as a sucker or as a fellow grifter under the skin, ready to con you out of a dollar. “You run a racket, same as me,” Stan tells Lilith when he sees her tony setup as a psychiatrist. His fatal flaw is that he is without illusions about himself and others, but it’s also his strength—until he becomes intoxicated with his own power over the pushovers who believe in him.
And then there’s the “geek,” the lowest form of carnival performer. Billed as a “Wild Man,” the geek is kept half naked in a cage and bites the heads off of chickens and snakes in exchange for a bottle and a warm place to sleep. Stan feels both revulsion and pity for him. “How does someone become a geek?” he asks Clem, who explains that you find a far-gone alcoholic, feed him opium-laced drinks, and tell him the job is temporary until “he’ll geek” just to be kept in alcohol.
At one point, Stan tries to find the geek, who’s escaped into the fun house—the House of Damnation—and he enters as if being swallowed, like Jonah, by a leviathan, the walls of the fun house pulsing with visceral life. “I knew absolutely that he was being swallowed,” del Toro explained. “He enters through the devil’s mouth.… The whole movie is encapsulated in that House of Damnation—every sin and every weakness Stan has: lust, pride, greed.” Robbed of his humanity, the geek is chased back into his cage, reminiscent of poor Joseph Merrick being pursued by his keepers in David Lynch’s powerful black-and-white film The Elephant Man (1980).
Stan falls for Molly, the prettiest girl in the carnival. In Gresham’s novel, Molly took dancing lessons as a girl, entering the carnival world as a “cooch” dancer after the death of her grifting father. Stan woos Molly by dancing with her on the carousel, a scene evocative of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, where another Bruno, played by Robert Walker, stalks his victim, first on a carousel and then through the Tunnel of Love in an amusement park.
Another thread that weaves through American film is the corrupt, manipulating psychiatrist: the scheming Vincent Price in Alfred L. Werker’s Shock (1946); Cornelia Otis Skinner as Miss Holloway, who runs an imprisoning sanitarium in Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited; the self-described quack Jules Amthor in Murder, My Sweet; and Leo G. Carroll turning the gun on himself as the head of a psychiatric hospital in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
“The whole movie is encapsulated in that House of Damnation—every sin and every weakness Stan has.”
Even more cynical are the “spook acts,” spiritualists and phony preachers conning needy souls into forking over big sums for a message from the departed, as in The Black Camel, with Warner Oland as Charlie Chan and a turbaned Bela Lugosi as a crooked medium, or Robert Mitchum in the cult classic Night of the Hunter. In Nightmare Alley, Pete warns Stan that “no good comes out of a spook act…. When a man believes his own lies … people get hurt.” But Stan has seen what that trick can do, and he feels that it’s the gig he’s been waiting for his entire life.
As for Gresham, a man fascinated by Houdini, it’s not surprising that both escape and fate are themes in his novel. Each chapter is named after a card from the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck, and the only fortunes told that come true are Zeena’s.
The idea of leaving home to join the circus was popular in Depression-era stories, but for Stan it’s the carnival life itself he wants to escape. He rises from carny barker to a tuxedoed nightclub mentalist who, with Molly’s help, “reads” the minds of a roomful of swells. Though Stan tries to escape his humble circumstances, he cannot escape his fate.
It is perhaps no surprise that Gresham himself made the ultimate escape on September 14, 1962, taking an overdose of sleeping pills. He was found in room 2023 in the Dixie Hotel near New York’s Times Square, a flophouse he’d stayed in more than a decade earlier when writing Nightmare Alley. It was a favorite hotel of carny workers, where they would go to drink and to wash the sweat and sawdust out of their hair.
He had registered under the phony name Asa Kendall of Baltimore, and he left behind a calling card that read: “No Address / No Phone / No Business / No Money / Retired.” On the reverse side were the words You would rather die than face truth. In a hard-boiled finale, a small item in The New York Times was headlined, MAN SAID TO BE AUTHOR IS FOUND DEAD IN HOTEL. The article explained that “a man tentatively identified by the police as William Lindsay Gresham, the writer, was found dead yesterday afternoon in his room at the Dixie Hotel.”
Oddly enough, he was given more respect in, of all places, the paper’s “Bridge” column 10 days later, which recognized his expertise with a deck of cards: “The card-playing world lost one of its best students in the death Sept. 14 of William L. Gresham, a novelist, amateur conjurer, and expert on the history of playing cards.”
There have always been hucksters and grifters and snake-oil salesmen in American life—one even made it as far as the presidency—which is why Nightmare Alley is a film for our own time, a meditation on America as crime scene, the straitjacket of class and caste, rampant injustice, the muddling of fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. As Gresham himself once wrote, “It was the dark alley all over again.”
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. Previously a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends
Nancy Schoenberger is the author of several books, including Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood and Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero