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Laramie Movie Scope:
Nightmare Alley (2021)

A con man gets conned

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 22, 2021 – Bradley Cooper stars as con man Stan Carlisle in this hard-hitting film noir remake about a mentalist who makes the big time, but gets too greedy and careless for his own good. The screenplay is based on a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, and a 1947 film, of the same name, starring Tyrone Power.

Set in the early 1940s the movie opens with Stan dragging a body into a room and then setting the house on fire. It is the act of a desperate man who is running from something. Carrying a radio, he boards a bus and ends up near a carnival, where he is hired as a laborer by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe of “The Lighthouse”).

Clever and good-looking, Stan sticks with the carnival, attracted to pretty young Molly Cahill (played by Rooney Mara of “Side Effects”) who stars in one of the carnival sideshows, an impressive electrical show using Tesla coils. Stan also becomes fascinated by a mentalist act, Zeena the Seer, run by Zeena (Toni Collette of “I'm Thinking of Ending Things”) and her elderly, drunken husband, Pete (David Strathairn of “Nomadland”).

Pete, when he's sober, has a remarkable ability to do what mentalists call “cold readings.” Using broad statements and keen observations of reactions and body language, Pete is able to read Stan like a poster, then he tells Stan how he did it. Stan asks Pete to teach him this skill, and he shows a remarkable aptitude for it. Pete warns Stan not to start believing his own mentalist lies because it will lead to his downfall.

Acquiring Pete's book of tricks, and seducing Molly, while carrying on an affair with Zeena, Stan shows himself to be utterly ruthless. He leaves the carnival, with Molly, and a dead body in his wake. It won't be the last one. For those of you who have seen the 1947 movie of the same name, the plot of this one is very similar, but it is much darker in tone. Both the beginnings and ends of the two films are quite different.

We skip ahead two years to find Stan a very successful mentalist in Chicago. He is growing tired of his sidekick, Molly. Against her advice, Stan starts going after richer marks, promising to put them in touch with their departed dear ones, wives, sons, daughters, lovers who have passed on. The schemes get more and more dangerous as Stan tries to prey upon rich, powerful men.

Stan finds the perfect ally in influential psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett of “Ocean's Eight”). With Ritter's inside information on her rich clients, he is able to make his mentalist confidence act even more convincing. In return for helping Stan, however, Stan agrees to answer all of Ritter's questions truthfully, and she quickly begins to learn about Stan's dark past. The two begin an affair and Ritter becomes Stan's trusted confidant.

As Ritter peals away Stan's layers of self control, he begins drinking. He loses his edge and becomes careless at the worst possible time, his attempt at the big con with powerful businessman, Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins of “Kajillionaire”) and his dangerous bodyguard, Anderson (Holt McCallany of “Mindhunter”) who is not fooled at all by Stan. Grindle is even more corrupt than Stan.

There is Karmatic symmetry in the arc of Stan's fortunes, with an ending that seems perfect. Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett both give great performances in this movie that includes a very talented ensemble cast, including Ron Perlman, Tim Blake Nelson and Mary Steenburgen. This is a great-looking movie, too, with wonderful production designs by Tamara Deverell.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, this movie will win some more awards, since it looks so good and has such great performances. The story is powerful, too, but there are drawbacks. The pace of the film is slow and it seems way too long. The running time of two and a half hours seems even longer than that. I kept checking the time on my watch to see when it was finally going to end. Other than that, it is a great film. It rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2021 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]