Con artists’ tricks are a treat in Nightmare Alley

Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara star in remake of a classic piece of film noir

Thursday, 20th January — By Dan Carrier

Bradley Cooper and Rooney Mara in Nightmare Alley

Rooney Mara and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Certificate: 12a

THE scam has always been an attractively naughty topic for films and books: from Professor David Maurer’s detailed consideration of the world of the scam in The Big Con to fictional get-rich-quick fantasies in films such as The Sting, the idea of the anti-hero using their wits to outsmart and fleece those sitting on piles of cash is a well-worn narrative.

In this remake of a 1947 piece of classic film noir, itself adapted from a pulp novel by William Lindsay Gresham, the immorality of tricking the gullible and exploiting the vulnerable looms over the actions and behaviour of our anti-hero. This war-time story of sleezy criminality has a moral compass at its heart.

We meet Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) in auspicious circumstances, as he drags a body into a basement and sets fire to a ramshackle house.

A scruffy wanderer, who we are gently and gradually introduced to (he has virtually no lines for the opening half hour), he finds work with a travelling carnival and begins to become part of a fairground family.

Taken under the wing of ancient trickster Pete (David Strathairn), he starts learning how to read a mark, create a con, and dupe the crowds.

After falling for fellow fairground worker Molly (Rooney Mara), the pair set off to New York to work the clubs and bars – and find rich, unsuspecting victims they can fleece.

Cate Blanchett swans in as the stylish and crooked psychoanalyst who provides the required back stories Stan needs to play his marks.

His dubious living creates an ambiguous hero – one whose morals are utterly skewiff, a person who the viewer at first roots for and then feels guilty for doing so.

Stanton has the air of a James M Cain character about him: he feels as if he would be at home in Cain’s near-perfect American noir novel, Serenade.

The original film, was released during the time Cain was writing his bestsellers and it has been faithfully updated.

Del Toro’s version is the culmination of a combination of strong performances, a great story well told, and production values that are atmospheric and just very beautiful to look at.

Del Toro is known for scattering about his film’s horrendous creatures from the depths of his imagination. Here he creates a just as stylish set of monsters, albeit in human form.

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