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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Nightmare Alley’ and ‘Swan Song’: Remakes and Double-takes

Spielberg, Del Toro, and the perils & possibilities of remakes. Plus questions of mortality in a sci-fi flick that sends in the clones.

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Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley.”

Remakes can be a tricky business. Traditionally, the adage was that it made more sense to remake a lesser-known, imperfectly made movie than a certified classic. Of course, in today’s world of genre reboots and endless franchises, the safer box-office bet is on the product that more vividly evokes a known cultural commodity, but it’s still instructive to compare the approaches taken by directors Steven Spielberg and Guillermo Del Toro in remaking, respectively, West Side Story and Nightmare Alley.

Spielberg’s task would be the more intimidating one—if he weren’t, y’know, Steven Spielberg. Revamping a multi-Oscar-winning icon in a genre that, despite some recent successes, can still feel anachronistic is a tall order. Despite generally good reviews (though not from me), Spielberg’s Story bombed in theaters, partly because its mature-skewing target demographic remains hesitant regarding in-person screenings. I’d argue that it also flopped because, while expertly crafted, solidly staged, and (with one glaring exception) well-cast, it feels neither relevant nor necessary.

Spielberg made several changes to bring West Side Story more in line with contemporary realities, but by preserving its basic structure and setting, he missed a chance to make it more obviously pertinent to 21st-century debates over racism, immigration, and gentrification. After all, the musical itself is a riff on Romeo and Juliet, so why feel obliged to keep the action stuck in the 1950s? Of course, some would argue that it’s “just a musical,” but it’s one that was created in order to make musicals more engaged with the world outside the theater doors.

Del Toro’s new film of Nightmare Alley, on the other hand, doesn’t even self-identify as a sequel to the 1947 movie of the same name. Rather, the screenplay (co-written by formerly Portland-based film critic Kim Morgan) is credited with being adapted from the novel by William Lindsey Gresham, not from the original film’s screenplay. In fact, mention of the 1947 version is largely absent from the movie’s production notes and marketing. This isn’t surprising: 1947’s Nightmare Alley didn’t win any awards or turn any profit, despite featuring one of the era’s leading men in Tyrone Power.

The failure to connect with audiences or most critics can be chalked up to its almost perversely dark tone. Even among the wave of films noir that emerged in the wake of World War II, Nightmare Alley presents an especially bleak portrait of humanity. Conversely, that cynicism probably makes it timelier, if less dangerous, in today’s fallen world, despite the fact that Del Toro’s version sticks with the original’s historical setting.

We may as well get the plot and star-studded cast out of the way. Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley starts in 1939, when an enigmatic drifter named Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) wanders into a traveling carnival, disgusted by the chicken-chomping geek act but looking for someplace to start again. Before long, he’s ingratiated himself with the mentalist act run by Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Straithairn), and finds himself drawn to the pure-hearted Molly (Rooney Mara), another performer. Willem Dafoe scurries around and shows off his Bobby Peru-style grin as the amoral manager of the whole sordid sideshow, and Ron Perlman gets to play a circus strongman again (remember City of Lost Children?) as the loutish Bruno.

Eventually, Carlisle picks up enough inside dope on the mentalism game to move on to the big city, in this case Buffalo, where he teams up with a high-priced psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) to pull a con on a wealthy industrialist (Richard Jenkins). Needless to say, complications ensue.

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Cooper is fine in a role that at one point drew the interest of Leonardo DiCaprio, who would have brought an oilier, smarmier vibe to the lead. Blanchett will likely nab an Oscar nomination for her role as the film’s femme fatale, rather than for her superior work in the upcoming Don’t Look Up. Nightmare Alley looks great, and its two-and-a-half hour running time (40 minutes longer than the 1947 version) is justified by the effective way it plumbs the history and soul of its antihero.

In 1940s noirs, the doomed protagonists were often ordinary men with, perhaps, one flaw that fate exploited to destroy them. Here, Carlisle has a particular (though not unique) pathology, which allows us to observe him from the outside. We don’t confront our own fallibility and contingency the way we do in films like Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, or the 1947 Nightmare Alley. Nonetheless, Del Toro’s first film without any explicit supernatural elements is an effective, darkly glossy fable where the innocents suffer and only some of the guilty pay. Happy Holidays! (Opens Friday, Dec. 17, at theaters nationwide)

ALSO OPENING THIS WEEK:

Swan Song: What are the odds that two films with the same title, released in the same calendar year, would each feature one of the best male performances of the year? A few months back, the great cult star Udo Kier had a late-career peak as a gay hairdresser who runs away from his nursing home in Todd Phillips’ Swan Song. And now Mahershala Ali gives a performance nearly as endearing in writer-director Benjamin Cleary’s thought-provoking Swan Song. The two films, and performances, couldn’t be more different, although—as their titles suggest—each confronts issues of encroaching mortality.

Mahershala Ali and Mahershala Ali in “Swan Song.”

In the newer film, Ali plays Cameron, a happily married illustrator, father of one with another on the way, who happens to be terminally ill. This being the near future, a program exists whereby Cameron can travel to a remote island, essentially be cloned (save for that bothersome brain tumor), and have his memories implanted in the clone. The clone then returns to Cameron’s blissfully unaware wife (Naomie Harris) and family, so that they don’t have to deal with the grief of losing him–yet, I guess…

The mechanics of Swan Song’s sci-fi concepts are a bit murky—why, for instance, is it possible to reconstruct Cameron on a molecular level without his tumor, but apparently not possible to just go in and molecularly deconstruct the tumor itself? And the movie never addresses the issues that would arise if this sort of program ever became publicly know or widespread: spouses and children would constantly be looking for signs that their loved one has been replaced by a perfect simulacrum, probably leading to waves of bizarre paranoia.

But Ali’s performance saves the movie. Taking the stereotypical double role and imbuing it with the level of sensitivity and genuine pathos—on both sides—he has demonstrated in his Oscar-winning Moonlight and The Green Book roles. Harris, too, is exceptional, and able support comes from Awkafina as Cameron’s fellow “patient” and Glenn Close as the enigmatic head of the whole project. (Opens Friday, Dec. 17, at Cinema 21 and streaming on Apple TV+)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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