Monday, January 3, 2022

Nightmare Alley and The Tragedy of Macbeth: Cinematic “Art”

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley.

William Lindsay Gresham’s tough, darkly lyrical 1946 novel Nightmare Alley moves from the carny life to the world of phony spiritualists – scam artists who make a living off the sorrow of rich people trying desperately to contact loved ones on the other side of the grave. (In real life Harry Houdini was one of the more celebrated marks.) Gresham’s anti-hero is Stanton Carlisle, who joins a carnival and partners up with his lover, Zeena, to revive the mentalist act she used to perform with her husband Pete, a hopeless drunk who dies when Stan hands him a flask of wood alcohol. (It’s an accident: both the poison and a flask of potable gin have been stored in the same trunk. But as Gresham writes the incident, it’s one of those sinister acts of wish fulfillment, like Bruno’s murdering Guy’s blackmailing wife in Strangers on a Train.) Stan proves to be so good at the act that he soon outgrows it and takes it on the nightclub circuit, with a younger, prettier girlfriend as his assistant – Molly, whose carny performance used to involve an electric current and an alluring skimpy costume: sex and sci-fi “magic” intertwined. That’s when he crosses paths with a higher type of parasite, a psychoanalyst named Lilith who teams up with him to take advantage of her grieving patients. Stan and Lilith become lovers too, and their main target is a fabulously wealthy man named Ezra Grindle who is suffused with guilt over the fate of the girl he impregnated when he was a young man. Gresham never lets us forget how important a role sex plays in both low and high-class scams. (The Library of America, faithful purveyor of forgotten treasures, republished the book about a quarter of a century ago in a first-rate collection called Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s.)

A year after the book came out, in the midst of the post-war era, with its forays into grittier subject matter and the concomitant film noir explosion, 20th-Century Fox released a startlingly effective movie version, adapted by Jules Furthman, directed by Edmund Goulding and shot, in strikingly contrasting black and white, by Lee Garmes. Joan Blondell played Zeena (it’s her most memorable work in a long and honorable career); the authentic, underappreciated Coleen Gray was Molly; the character actor Ian Keith made a haunting impression as the dilapidated Pete – a genuine remnant of the theatrical technique passed down from the nineteenth-century actors, now dying as the first generation of Method-trained movie stars began to take over. And Tyrone Power was amazing as Carlisle: it was the only performance he ever gave that touched greatness. Inevitably, the studio softened the ending: the character is finally redeemed by the love of true-hearted Molly. But this sop to the Hays Code barely registers after Power plays the story’s actual final scene, where Stan, now an end-of-the-line dipso like Pete, accepts the job of carnival geek, assuring the owner, “Mister, I was born for it.” (TCM is screening the picture twice on January 9, at 12 a.m. and at 10 a.m. Or you can watch it on YouTube.)

Guillermo del Toro’s new remake of Nightmare Alley, co-written with Kim Morgan, is beautifully designed by Tamara Deverell and shot (in color, of course) by Dan Laustsen. It’s very impressive to look at, and I hated it. Graham’s achievement, and Furthman and Goulding’s, is to explore the depths of a tawdry pop narrative; they’re working the same territory as Stephen King and Brian De Palma. But del Toro isn’t satisfied with telling Graham’s gripping story; he wants to make it more sinister and turn it into art with a capital A. The results are bloated – it goes on for two and half prestige-laden hours, every set piece presented as lavishly as in an overproduced Hollywood spectacular from the fifties – with a lot of sober-faced, ham-fisted acting that, instead of liberating the melodrama by making it taut and exciting and colorful and giving it solid psychological underpinnings, simply makes it, well, melodrammier. All of the enhancements of the text feel extraneous (like a subplot involving Peter Macneiill and Mary Steenburgen as a judge and his wife who are mourning their lost son), and many of the omissions feel misguided or confuse the plot. Stan, whose Oedipal childhood is an element in the book but left out of the 1947 version, has nightmares about the father he apparently, according to what del Toro shows us, first froze to death and then burned up in a fire. The scene where, after the gulling of Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) collapses, Lilith (Cate Blanchett) tries to persuade Stan (Bradley Cooper) that he’s been suffering from paranoid fantasies, has become an incoherent display of histrionics in which she tries out that tactic for about a minute and a half, then changes her mind and tells him that she loves him and then shoots him. On the other hand, while Toni Collette is a perfect choice to play Zeena, the hard-boiled, kind-hearted carny dame with the tarot cards, the role has been slashed to ribbons. (So has her affair with Stan, which amounts to a one-night stand.)

At the heart of this folly is Cooper, who is handsome enough to play Stan Carlisle but is otherwise completely wrong for it. I liked Cooper in Clint Eastwood’s otherwise dreadful American Sniper, and he showed a warmth in A Star Is Born that he hadn’t accessed since he played scenes with Jennifer Garner in the TV series Alias early in his career. But he doesn’t have the force of personality to play a gifted con man whose success is buoyed up – and ultimately wrecked – by the buried resentment of an unhappy, manipulated child who feels the world has given him a raw deal. Except for one good scene where Lilith psychoanalyzes him, Cooper holds the camera but nothing else. Stan is the emotional center of the story, so here it’s just a complicated swirl around a void. And Blanchett’s deep-freeze performance is pretty ridiculous. She’s vampier than Margaret Livingston as the City Woman in Murnau’s great silent Sunrise – but Murnau knew exactly what he was doing with that character. (She didn’t need to make psychological sense; Lilith does.) As the cynical circus owner, Clem Hoatley, Willem Dafoe acts up a storm; every time he made an appearance I had the urge to hide under my seat.

Rooney Mara stays grounded in the part of the innocent Molly, which is rather a feat considering that she’s as miscast as Cooper is. And there are some high spots in the supporting ensemble: David Strathairn as Pete, Collette in the little that del Toro and Morgan have left her of Zeena’s character, and, in small parts that mirror each other, Ron Perlman as Molly’s protector, Bruno the strong man, and Holt McCallany as Grindle’s bodyguard Anderson. As Grindle, Richard Jenkins struggles manfully to find something to play but in vain.

Oddly, the movie that kept coming to mind while I was watching Nightmare Alley was Bob Rafelson’s 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in the John Garfield and Lana Turner roles. Del Toro is infinitely more talented than Rafelson, but he makes precisely the same mistake, taking a tense, nasty little noir that was made into a classic movie in the forties and pumping it up in a bid to transform it into an art thing. (Rafelson’s Postman wasn’t two and a half hours long, though; it only felt like it. And Lange’s acting salvaged some of it.) I went for Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and for Hellboy 2: when he tunes into the wonders of fairy tales he can perform his own wonders. But the over-the-top sadistic villain played by Sergi López in Pan’s Labyrinth turned into the anti-commie villain played by Michael Shannon in del Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, and the agit-prop politics almost drowned the magic of the story. Nightmare Alley isn’t marred by pedantry, exactly; like its protagonist, it’s done in by delusions of grandeur.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in The Tragedy of Macbeth.

The word for The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel Coen’s film of the Shakespeare tragedy, is monochromatic. I’d apply it not only to Bruno Delbonnel’s black-and-white cinematography, which is suffused by a white haze that, along with the bare, underpopulated interiors, impart a sameness to most of the locations, but also to the portrayals of the two stars, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. McDormand doesn’t have a distinctive take on Lady Macbeth; she comes across more like a scheming housewife than an aristocrat. (Her performance would be a better fit for the role of the cruel-hearted landlady in Gorky’s The Lower Depths who throws boiling water on her kid sister.) But at least she approaches the verse with some skill; Washington reads his speeches, including “If ‘t were done when ‘t is done” and “Is this a dagger that I see before me” and even “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” as if they were prose. And his only contribution to one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters is to sound like a little boy when the tide turns against him in the final scenes. He’s terrible, though it’s as much Coen’s fault as his own. He’s been given a wretched haircut that squares off his skull so that he looks more like a boxer than the King of Scotland. And Coen, working on his own for the first time, manages a feat I would have thought impossible: he obliterates Denzel Washington’s charisma.

The production design (by Stefan Dechant) and lighting are undeniably accomplished and some of the images are very striking, but they don’t provide any pleasure for the viewer; they merely enhance the general oppressiveness. I haven’t had such a miserable time at a film of one of Shakespeare’s tragedies since Peter Brook’s nihilistic 1971 King Lear. The Macbeths wander down endless corridors, dwarfed by immense walls; when groups of supporting characters appear Coen stages them in procession, hanging back from the two main figures so that they’re upstaged by the set. He’s so determined to empty out the frame that we barely see the army Malcolm has gathered to lay siege against Dunsinane, and the battle happens off screen. The direction consists of one jaw-dropper after another.  After Macbeth murders Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), the blood dripping from his corpse forms a tick-tock rhythm with the knocking on the door; now there’s an idea. The witches are all played by one actress, Kathryn Hunter, who contorts herself ingeniously into the shape of a bird as she alternates voices; you might guess that she has multiple personality disorder, but then suddenly, at the end of her interview with Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel), her reflection doubles in the stream that separates her from them, and the next time she appears, when Macbeth seeks her out and she conjures up ghosts for him, you can see all three witches clearly.

The outsize expressionism may be a wrongheaded nod to Orson Welles, who used it not only, famously, in Citizen Kane but also in his Macbeth, Othello and Chimes at Midnight (his adaptation of the Henry IV plays and maybe the greatest of all Shakespeare films). Coen’s more direct quotes are from Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth. That version ends on a sinister note – after Duncan’s son Malcolm succeeds the defeated Macbeth on the throne of Scotland, Malcolm’s brother Donalbain, whom we’ve completely forgotten about (Shakespeare drops from the play after he runs away to Ireland), returns, camping out near Dunsinane, and we’re left with the expectation that he will kill his brother and continue the bloody bid for power. Polanski also rewrites Ross as a sort of double agent who pretends to ally himself with the anti-Macbeth forces while participating in the killing of Banquo and opening the gate to let in the thugs who slaughter the Macduff household. Coen combines these two inventions: his Ross (Alex Hassell) not only participates in Banquo’s murder and helps to set up the Macduffs, but after Banquo’s death he catches up with Banquo’s son Fleance (Lucas Barker) and, rather than dispatch him, hides him away in the cottage of an old man (also played by Kathryn Hunter) until the end of the movie. Then he liberates him, presumably to steal the throne away from Malcolm (Harry Melling). This complication of Polanski’s take on Ross makes it incoherent.

Melling, best known as Dudley in the Harry Potter movies, is quite good as Malcolm, and Corey Hawkins does a creditable job with the role of Macduff, especially in the scene where Ross delivers the news of his family’s fate. Except for them and Gleeson, who imbues the role of the doomed Duncan with warmth, no one in the supporting cast makes much of an impression except Stephen Root as the Porter – and he’s awful. (I’d say that he chews the scenery, if there were any scenery.) If you don’t blink you can spot Jefferson Mays as the doctor who witnesses Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking. He’s got maybe three lines. Keep your fingers crossed that Joel Coen doesn’t get a hankering to make a movie of Hamlet.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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