Directed by Edmund Goulding
Starring: Tyrone Powers, Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell, Helen Walker
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Rooney Mara, Toni Collete, Cate Blanchett
The 1947 version of the movie is a quintessential film noir while the 2021 version is a current best-picture nominee from one of today’s greatest directors.
I viewed the del Toro version of Nightmare Alley for this year’s Oscar watch. I was floored by how much I liked it, then confused that the reviews were “good, not great.” Many critics said that it couldn’t touch the original version, so I decided to watch the 1947 film and decide for myself.
Stanton Carlisle is a fresh-faced showman at a low-level carnival. He works with a mentalism act run by Madam Zeena and her drunk husband, Pete. While Zeena and Pete warn Stan of the dangers in taking advantage of customers’ good faith, Stan only sees an opportunity to get ahead in life. After a tragedy befalls the act, Stan leaves with the carnival’s electric girl, Molly. Together, they begin a two-person act with complex code signals.
Two years later, Stan and Molly are on top of the world, performing to packed hotel venues. Not impressed is local Freudian psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter. However, she obliges when Stan wants to use her connections to “bring healing” to the local ruling class. Stepping his mentalism act up to charlatan spiritual ministry has consequences, though—permanent consequences. And for Stanton Carlisle, it becomes harder and harder to know who’s taking advantage of whom.
Each iteration presents a different interpretation of Stanton Carlisle. Tyrone Powers, the actor playing Stanton in the 1947 version, is openly money hungry and doesn’t think twice about taking advantage of common folks. This attitude bleeds over into his personal life, as Stan woos whatever warm body is closest. Bradley Cooper’s version shows Stanton as someone who wants fame and attention because he was never given any as a child. He can’t help but consume everything within his path whether possessions or people.
The biggest difference between the two, however, is time. Literally, the runtime is quite different, with the old version clocking in at 110 minutes while the new version is 150 minutes long. Perhaps more interesting, though, is both films’ release timing. The novel Nightmare Alley was released in 1946, so the 1947 version had the immediacy of cultural relevance. 2021’s version came out 75 years later, making the more recent adaptation a period piece.
Likewise, both films’ releases are affected by their relationships to the noir genre. The 1947 version purposely follows noir’s tropes and trappings because noir was one of the most popular styles of that decade. In 2021, film noir has had its day; history has shown us the complete arc of that movement. Therefore, Guillermo del Toro could choose which pieces of the genre to recreate and which to update for modern audiences. To be succinct, 1947’s Nightmare Alley participated in the film noir genre while 2021’s Nightmare Alley homages it.
According to my analysis, the 2021 version. I feel that the 1947 version over-condenses the source material, suffers from flat direction, and preaches to the audience.
Del Toro’s adaptation gives extended time to Stan’s carnival beginnings, exploring Zeena’s character more fully while giving Molly and Clem, the carnival owner, more to do. Stan’s fall from grace hits harder with each plot beat in the new version because we more clearly see his wide-eyed hope for the future turn into cynical greed.
2021’s Nightmare Alley also gives us more dynamic movement. While a static camera isn’t necessary a bad choice, del Toro’s constant, subtle frame shifting underscores Stan’s nonstop lies; he can’t stop tweaking his narrative or changing his relationships. Goulding’s 1947 version is often basic medium shots with only a handful of innovative moments. Film of this era could look “stage-y,” the drama unfolding before the audience as if they were watching a play. I understand that, in this case, the old version was hamstrung by the time it lived in, but I could easily point out dozens of 1940s films that rose above those limitations (lookin’ at you Third Man).
Finally, film at the time was still beholden to the Hayes Code, a set of religious rules put in place to ensure that films taught good morals. With Nightmare Alley, one would think that Stan’s decisions and their consequences are more than convincing enough to stay on the straight and narrow. Instead, the ‘47 film can’t resist giving us a coda where he is redeemed. 2021’s movie has no such limitations, giving its audience a tragic, powerful ending. While my friends and I both predicted where the ride was headed, Stan’s refusal to get off before it ends was impossible to look away from.
So why did a number of critics say the old one was better? Obviously, people have differing opinions and tastes, but I feel that this is a case of nostalgic bias. The 1947 version is by no means a bad movie, and remakes that surpass their original are so rare that it can be hard to view a new attempt fairly. Just as younger moviegoers have recency bias, critics who consider themselves standard bearers can be hesitant to accept something new. A remake doesn’t negate an old movie, though, and the reverse is true as well. One can easily find 1999’s The Mummy after watching 2016’s version or 1932’s version. 1940’s top-shelf classic The Invisible Man sits beside the 2020 adaptation. In my opinion, after watching both versions of Nightmare Alley back to back, the newer one simply performs better.