The magic and the melancholy of master filmmaker Guillermo del Toro

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Trying to piece together the creative jigsaw of Nightmare Alley, it’s hard to start anywhere other than Tod Browning’s Freaks, a 1932 film that, when it was first released, was considered so horrific it was cut by 30 minutes in the US and banned entirely in the UK. Like Nightmare Alley it is a grotesque study of human darkness set in the wild world of a carnival sideshow. What made Freaks both unique and, at the time, disturbing, was Browning’s use of real sideshow performers.

Even now, if you walk into del Toro’s office, you will find life-sized statues of two of its stars: Johnny Eck, an early-20th century carnival sideshow performer who was born without the bottom half of his body, and was billed in sideshows as “Half-Boy”, and Koo Koo, another carnival sideshow performer, born Minnie Woolsey, who was born with Virchow-Seckel syndrome, which gave her a very short stature and a small head, who was billed in sideshows as “Koo-Koo the Bird Girl”.

Director Guillermo del Toro, left, on the set with actors Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett during the filming of Nightmare Alley.

Director Guillermo del Toro, left, on the set with actors Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett during the filming of Nightmare Alley.Credit:Searchlight Pictures

But when it came to bringing Nightmare Alley to the screen, del Toro says he consciously tried not to fall into the trap of referencing Freaks too directly. “I thought that’s what people, by pure muscle reflex, are going to think I’m going to do,” del Toro says. Instead, he leaned into another, less well-known work of Browning’s, Fast Workers, about the life of a high-rise skyscraper builder looking for emotional and financial stability. “So, it’s Tod Browning but not in the way you would expect.”

Opposite and equal to Cooper’s Stan, as the film enters its middle and final thirds, is Cate Blanchett in the role of psychiatrist Dr Lilith Ritter, the film’s femme fatale. It is a dazzling performance, enhanced by Blanchett’s clarity of understanding and a set so richly stylised it makes her look like she is doing a slow, careful ballet cambré in the midst of an art deco museum piece.

“For me, the salient thing is intelligence, an intelligence that is contained. And I think Cate is one of the most intelligent human beings I’ve ever met and brings that to every part,” del Toro says. “It was almost like a double take where, how come she’s never done [a role like this before]? Because she was literally born to play that part.

“The same is true for Bradley,” del Toro adds. “I think the gravity and darkness that he brings to Stan, he had never done. And the way he behaves, moves, assumes the period, the intelligence, to make him real. So, those two, I called them jokingly, when I was going to get Cate Blanchett, I called Bradley and I said, hey, King Kong, I’m about to meet with your Godzilla. And I said, together you will destroy blocks and blocks of the city.”

One of the most interesting aspects of Nightmare Alley is that, for a filmmaker who mostly makes original work, this brought to del Toro’s desk a work that not only existed as a novel but also as a 1947 film, which starred iconic film actor Tyrone Power as Stan. (Reflecting on William Lindsay Gresham’s original work in 2010, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda said that “as a portrait of the human condition, Nightmare Alley is a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece”.)

Edmund Goulding, the director of the 1947 film, was directed by then-20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck to make some changes to the book’s story, in the service of lightening the film’s tone and delivering a slightly different ending. When he sat down to write a new screenplay adaptation, del Toro says there was never any doubt in his mind that he wanted to remain faithful to Gresham’s original ending.

“The way Bradley, Kim [Morgan, the film’s co-writer, and del Toro’s wife] and I discussed it, we always talked about our reckoning,” del Toro says. “We always said, the whole movie is prologue to the last two minutes. And you don’t have [someone like] Zanuck because when you come to the studio, and you come to the actor, you say, look, the ending is a dealbreaker. Even if we test it and people want to burn the theatre, this is the ending.

“It’s not a whim to be edgy, it’s not a whim to be dark, it is a movie that resonates with the anxieties of today, truth, lies, belief, perception, closed systems of reconfirmation of bias, hucksterism that rises and rises in a populist way. What are you going to end in but the truth?” del Toro adds. “You show a man the truth of his life, not changing, he just gets worse. And then in the last two minutes, all the masks fall off, and you have an incredible moment.”

There is one curious point of divergence. In the book, as Stan develops his mentalism act, he transforms himself professionally into Reverend Carlisle. And it seems that Gresham, in the book, was consciously wanting to say something about the idea of the way fear is used as a tool in the commercialisation of faith. But in del Toro’s adaptation, Stan takes the stage name The Great Stanton, which seems to cast him as magician more than false prophet.

“That’s what I called the Elmer Gantry portion of the novel and I think it has been done to perfection a few times already,” del Toro says, referring to the 1960 film Elmer Gantry, based on Sinclair Lewis’s novel, about a confidence trickster and a female evangelist selling religion to a small town in America. (The film earned its writer/director Richard Brooks an Oscar in 1961 for best adapted screenplay.)

“What I had not seen is a guy being a predator of people who are seeking specific solace,” del Toro adds. And it’s a topic he feels like he knows well. In 1997, his father, Federico del Toro Torres, was kidnapped in Guadalajara and held for 72 days until a ransom was paid for his release.

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“Very early on, some psychics show up to talk to my mother, and they said, we know where your husband is, we can take you there if you believe in us,” del Toro recalls. “And I remember saying, please get away, leave the house. But I saw my mother hold on to that hope. So, I’ve seen this effect firsthand. And for me, it’s not a discourse.”

When his father died in 2018, del Toro adds, he left him a watch. “Which I tried, and I realised for the first time in my life that Dad had smaller wrists than me,” del Toro says.

“I don’t know how or why this is important as a moment, but it’s there in this movie,” he adds. “And as a storyteller, I remind myself that I have to speak of things that I believe or feel are true. Because I think when you put out a story, it resonates with people in the ether, and they find themselves in it and are provoked by it. And if it’s true to you, it resonates beautifully, even if it’s antagonistic.”

A NIGHTMARE ALLEY PRIMER

Frankenstein (1931)
The blueprint for all monster movies, and a deeply influential work on Guillermo del Toro. Adapted from a stage play based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein is a story of the monstrosity of man. It’s central plot point – how the ambition and ego of a man unleashes the monster within, only to have that monster return and destroy him – is echoed in the story of Nightmare Alley.

Freaks (1932)
A year after he had directed Universal’s now iconic horror masterpiece Dracula (1931), Tod Browning directed this controversial film for MGM; the story of the cruel manipulation of a sideshow performer Hans (Harry Earles) by the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who conspires with strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) to fleece Hans out of his inheritance.

Fast Workers (1933)
Perhaps Browning’s best film, with one humiliating footnote: the scandal of Freaks the year before meant that MGM did not give him an on-screen credit. Fast Workers, based on John McDermott’s play Rivets, is the story of high-rise skyscraper construction workers, notably con man Gunner Smith (John Gilbert), his sidekick Bucker Reilly (Robert Armstrong) and the gold-digging Mary (Mae Clarke).

Nightmare Alley (1947)
Edmund Goulding directs Jules Furthman’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. In this version of the film, Tyrone Power plays Stan Carlisle, with Joan Blondell as the stage clairvoyant Zeena and Helen Ritter as psychologist Lilith Ritter. In a tragic footnote, Gresham took his life in 1962 in the same room at New York’s Hotel Carter where he wrote the first draft of Nightmare Alley. (The hotel closed in 2014.)

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