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KPCW sends its most discerning moviegoers to the movies each week to let you know which films are worth going to and which are a pass. The Friday Film Review airs at 7:20 a.m., during the Noon News and in The Local View. KPCW Friday Film Reviewers are: Barb Bretz, Rick Brough, Mark Harrington and Linda Jager.

Friday Film Review--"Nightmare Alley"

A new film in theaters deals with evil, guilt, lies and self-delusion. It’s not exactly a Christmas movie.

The new film “Nightmare Alley” shows the rise and fall of a con man named Stan Carlisle, in the days leading up to World War II.

Stan, played by Bradley Cooper, is a drifter who hires on as a roustabout for a fleapit traveling carnival. But before long, he’s apprenticing for Pete (played by David Strathairn) a boozehound who once headlined across the globe as a mentalist.

It turns out Stan has a natural talent for sizing up the suckers and what they will fall for. He learns how to dazzle a mark with “cold readings”, that is, supposed psychic flashes that are just vague generalizations and trial and error.

In time, Pete is dead from alcohol poisoning—an accident that Stan had a lot to do with. Stan leaves the carnival and is ready to hit the big-time—in large part because he has Pete’s codebook, a hand-crafted manual that allows a magician on stage and an assistant in the audience to throw each other tips over the heads of the crowd.

But he forgets one thing—Pete’s warning not to turn the act into a “spook show”. Don’t mess with the dangerous emotions of people who think you’re contacting friends and loved ones in the Great Beyond.

“Nightmare Alley” began as a cult novel by William Lindsay Gresham. A movie version in 1947 is now regarded as a film noir classic, and featured Tyrone Power superbly undermining his image as a dashing romantic hero.

By contrast, Bradley Cooper is more of a seedy-looking Everyman. But his performance has shades of gray, and lets you wonder if Stan is being corrupted, or if he was always a soulless reptile.

The director and co-writer of the new film, Guillermo del Toro, is an aficionado of the bizarre and nightmarish. He enjoys introducing you to the inhabitants of carny life—the strongman and the midget; the rubber man with apparently no spine; the accidents of birth displayed in glass jars in a dark tent; the Electric Girl Molly (portrayed by Rooney Mara); and Zeena the Seer (played by Toni Collette) whose Tarot Card readings might actually be legit.

But at the very bottom of the ladder is the Geek—a basket case or alcoholic who bites the heads off live chickens to entertain and horrify the audience. The act is a little more graphic than what was allowed in the 1947 film. And I hope no poultry were harmed in the making of this motion picture.

Yes, the picture is way dark, but it also persuades you to feel some kinship with the victims and the rubes. Stan may believe in never giving a sucker an even break but he has his sins and his ghosts, just like the other suckers.

He might just learn that lesson from his last, most ruthless partner a crooked psychologist played by Kate Blanchett. If you don’t believe she’s a cold character, please note that it’s always snowing outside the high-rise office where she secretly tape-records patients.

Del Toro’s film belongs on that short list of good re-makes. And I—I feel a presence in the room, right by my shoulder. It’s telling me that ‘Nightmare Alley” rates four stars on a scale of five.

Known for getting all the facts right, as well as his distinctive sign-off, Rick covered Summit County meetings and issues for 35 years on KPCW. He now heads the Friday Film Review team.