Freaks And Geeks

I went to see Nightmare Alley at the Ritzy in Brixton. I went to the midday screening, with subtitling for the hard-of-hearing. That was helpful as I can’t always follow what American actors are saying. I sat at the front of the auditorium and was in fact the only person watching. It will be a pity if it turns out to be a flop as it’s a good film.

Unfortunately I can’t take pictures of new films when they’re on in the cinema – it’s not allowed, but pictures from a mobile phone would look terrible anyway. So instead here’s the official trailer and here’s the poster in the corridor:

On the way in I noticed this and I wondered how recent were the events it was reacting to – turns out to be 2021:

The trailers for future films were:

Ali & Ava: love in a Northern town.

Death On The Nile: new version with Ken Branagh and French & Saunders.

The Nest: well-off people in the country, couldn’t make it out, could be a copy of Cold Creek Manor.

The Batman: I do not care about these films. I have no interest in boundary disputes on whether they are “real cinema”, I just don’t watch them. I liked the Adam West one in the 60s because it was fun. I saw the 1989 Tim Burton one and it had some interesting sets but was grim without reward and I tuned out after that.

Nightmare Alley is set in the late 30s. We do not get an exact date on screen but Willem Dafoe’s character helpfully mentions that the German dictator who “looks like Chaplin” has invaded Poland after half an hour, so that fixes us in 1939; we are told “Two Years Later” a bit later. Radio and newspapers cover Pearl Harbor as snow is falling, so we are up to December 1941. Some time later we hear what sounds like Churchill declaring Britain is at war with Japan, which is odd as that occurred almost immediately after the US declaration, yet it seems at least a few weeks has passed between those announcements in the storyline. The contemporary events have no relevance to the main narrative, although it does matter that in this world there are many broken men and broken families caused by the previous war and the enlistment drive it created.

Bradley Cooper plays Stan Carlisle, a man of about 30 years old, who we see right at the start setting fire to the shack on a hill where his dead father lives (the sight of the burning house as he walks away may be a faint allusion to “Christina’s World”, inverted). He travels and ends up at a travelling carnival where he witnesses the freak shows including a caged “geek” controlled by cruel old cynic Clem, played by Willem Dafoe. For about the first 20 minutes he doesn’t speak, but he soon finds his voice as he falls in with the clairvoyant act Madame Zeena and her alcoholic husband Pete. There is a very heavily symbolic scene near the start when The Geek escapes his cage and has to be trapped in the stalls representing Damnation and the 7 Deadly Sins; later on when Stan and Clem have to dump the body of the dying wretch outside a clinic we can see a neon sign JESUS SAVES in the background which stutters into US AVES. Nobody has any use or reference to religion in this world although Stan uses language of redemption and forgiveness when explaining the effects of “mentalism” and comparing it to the work of Sunday preachers.

Stan learns the tricks of being a phoney mindreader from sad old Pete, and we are shown how it is all just the “cold reading” techniques that arch spoilsports like James Randi and CSICOP have been exposing for the last few decades. Stan takes off to the big city with another sideshow artiste Molly, and smartens up considerably in the 2 year interlude before we see the pair making decent money from rooms full of well-off people. This film cuts lots of detail about transitions and everyday routines; this is a universe of interior sets that do not feel too far apart from each other. The period design and decoration is overwhelming and crowds the scenes. It looks over-researched and inauthentically exactly on-date, as though sourced from films and magazine adverts rather than real places. I don’t think it’s ever stated which city we are in during the 2nd half although it is definitely not New York. The sneer about Stan being “an Okie with straight teeth” could put us anywhere from California to the Great Lakes.

Molly is never more than an extra pair of hands for Stan and there is no sign of much passion between them or any tension for Stan when psychologist Dr Lilith Ritter (played by Cate Blanchett looking as much like Lauren Bacall as possible) appears and wants to make use of his superskills. Has she trained as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist? Would she have “PhD” on her office window in addition to “Dr”? Those are minor puzzles in the background. This film pushes to the front the technology that existed, almost challenging modern viewers to wonder: did “polygraphs” already exist in 1941 and was the term known? (yes).

The title is Clem’s term for the world of alcoholism that the chronically damaged souls that he recruits as geeks are lost in. This story does not arc around to any “there was a real ghost all along” cliched climax, though once we see that, the actual twist can be predicted well in advance, but it is done well.

I did not know until afterwards that this was the 2nd adaptation of the material. The moment when Lilith was nearly strangled by a telephone cord may be a reference to Vera’s death in Detour, another noir film of the time. In the background (literally, on a poster in the final scene) is of course Freaks, which I have not watched.

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