What’s a good film noir without a mysterious and sinister women at its heart, a femme fatal you cannot trust? In Nightmare Alley, the audience never really gets to know Dr. Lilith Ritter, its semi-antagonist. She turns up midway through the film in a swanky dress, and boldly challenges the false spiritualist, Stanton Carlisle, to guess what’s in her purse, without his assistant feeding him “verbal cues.” He whips off his blindfold to see this insolent woman… and then cold-reads her so well, he puts the audience back in their seats. Clearly uncomfortable beneath his brutal scrutiny, Lilith slinks back to her chair… but that is far from the end of this blonde bombshell’s presence. It turns out she is a psychologist (an “analyst” in her words) hired by a client to find out if Stanton is the real deal, an actual psychic, or just another stage fraud. Lilith knows damn well he’s a cheat, but he knows she’s more than she pretends to be, as well.
Though William Lesley Graham never tells us much about her in the book, either, there are clues left throughout del Toro’s gorgeous remake to hint about her past. Lilith has a lot of secrets and does not trust anyone easily. She warns Stanton not to swim with the sharks without fear of getting bit, and tells him that if you cross the right people, they will leave you alive to regret it. She shows him a massive scar on her chest to prove it. And when he says he wants to fraud sinister millionaire Ezra Grindle out of a few thousand bucks, Lilith tells him to forget it and run for the hills. He scares her. And there’s a good reason for that. We find out, through the course of Stanton’s con, that Grindle impregnated and then caused the death of the woman he loved, through a forced abortion. Since then, he has “hurt a great many girls.” The movie doesn’t tell us how or why; we just know he is a remorseless psychopath. Thus, we are left to assume that he is the one who sliced up Lilith after she got… too close? Or became his lover? Or he simply went off on her in an interview? Either way, she has a good reason to be scared of him.
But she also knows a good mark when she sees one. She’s curious about Stanton. Eager to get inside his head. Appallingly intuitive about him, from his point of view. She knows things about him, and his past, and his relationship with his father, that makes him squirm. And before Stanton knows it, he’s been conned. Lilith, we figure out at the end, has set him up, by putting him on to her clients, then benefitting from all the dough he gets off them. She has carefully made sure no one can trace any of it back to her, and has kept the money he stored in her safe (his first mistake) for herself. She denies she ever had any of it, leaving him to go on the run.
A story of ambitions gone amuck, of one man’s greed destroying everything he held dear (for Stanton, nothing is ever “enough,” and his determination to con Grindle cheats him out of his wife/girlfriend, his notoriety, his money, and almost his life), Nightmare Alley isn’t a feel good story, but it is an interesting, haunting film. I have never seen the original, but I did read the book, and the 2021 remake does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the novel, its main bones and fascinating characters, without getting sidetracked in its author’s “trick.” Gresham wrote the book to resemble a tarot deck, with each chapter pertaining to a certain card, ending with the hanged man. It makes for a slightly disjointed narrative, since he had to construct a scenario to go with each card, but the overall thrust of the book is classic in its raw depiction of adult themes. It has sex, violence, and profanity aplenty, in a dark story that suggests there is no light at the end of the rainbow, that hope does not exist, and that foolishness will undo the recklessly ambitious.
Stanton’s story is one of greed and stupidity with unforeseen consequences; in the film, he is more likable (if still just as amoral) than in the book, where he was far more deliberate in his high-stakes con deals. The only way he gets Molly to go along with cheating people is to convince her that they are doing “good” in these people’s lives, when in reality he’s just selling them a swindle and taking their money. In a particularly dark twist, at the height of his arrogance, one of his clients, a woman who he ‘consoled’ by telling her that her son looks forward to the day she and his father join him in the afterlife, repeats that phrase before shooting her husband and then eating a bullet.
The idea is that everyone’s lives are entwined, that there is no action without a consequence. Gresham meant nothing by it; as a deeply unhealthy atheist, this is how he saw the world, but I see it as a reminder that our lives matter, even if they seem small. And if you are never content with what you have, you may throw it all away in search of something “more.” Stanton had a good gig and a happy relationship, but at the first taste of power over someone else, of money and a higher status, of the forbidden fruit of Lilith, he didn’t hesitate to take it. And by the end of the story, he winds up alone and… living out the “role I was born to play” in yet another traveling circus. The author has brought him full circle, but the last time around, he had a full deck. This time, he doesn’t.
I won’t spoil any more of the story for you, but I will say that it’s a classic film noir. It doesn’t promise or deliver a happy ending, because there is none. It’s a dazzling story, haunting in its exploration of the darker side of human nature, and full of unforgettable performances. Some may wonder why they remade a classic, since the 1947 film is so beloved among film noir fans, but … if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have seen Cate Blanchett in the role she was born to play, that of a mysterious femme fatale.
I wrote this as part of the Bustles and Bonnets Costume Drama Blogathon!