The Peruvian poet​ César Vallejo wrote in a famous sonnet that he would die in Paris on a rainy Thursday. He lived in Paris, it rains quite a bit there, especially for poets, and he had a one in seven chance of being right about the day. In fact, he died in Paris on a Friday. It was raining. The poem isn’t so much a near-miss prophecy as a piece of lugubrious theatre, playing with what used to be called mentalism. This is the territory of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, as it was of Edmund Goulding’s 1947 movie of the same name and the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham on which both are based: a place where probabilities and magic hang out together, where trickery and psychic luck both have a home.

The date is right too. Vallejo died in 1938, del Toro’s Nightmare Alley starts in 1939 and continues past Pearl Harbor. At the beginning, I was looking at cars, clothes, hats, an American bus station, idly trying to identify its imagined historical moment, but I didn’t have to wait long for help. ‘You heard?’ a freak-show owner (Willem Dafoe) says to Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper): ‘That little kraut, the one that looks like Chaplin? He just invaded Poland.’ If we’re thinking magically, this is a glimpse of the still unmade The Great Dictator (1940); otherwise, it’s a common comparison that Chaplin chose to invert. Neither the novel nor the 1947 version deals with a specific historical moment in this way.

All three versions of the story dramatise a qualm about entertainment: when is fakery fun and when is it an exploitation of vulnerable people? The dialogue in each case is full of wise-guy cynicism: ‘People are desperate to know who they are’; someone ‘wants to be found out, like everyone else’. But what more can be said? The story starts in a fairground and moves to a city, shifting from mind-reading to psychoanalysis. At the beginning we see a psychic, Zeena (Joan Blondell in the original movie; Toni Collette now), asking her audience to write questions on little cards, which she burns, making a joke about alcohol being the true spirit of foresight. Except that she doesn’t burn them. She burns other bits of paper – the questions have been kept below the stage and are transcribed so that she can read them later. There is also a flashback to a time when Zeena and her partner (Ian Keith; David Strathairn) were in vaudeville. Their act involved working a complicated code, where one of them would apparently be repeating questions from the audience but was actually signalling facts about the questioners.

In the city, a different kind of trick is being played. A psychologist records her patients and passes on information to a mind-reader, who astounds these people, now his infatuated clients, with what he knows about their lives and dreams. This can only end badly, in a movie anyway, and religion looms over the crookery, especially in Goulding’s version. ‘You think God’s gonna stand for that?’ an unwilling partner in crime asks. ‘That’ involves not only pretending to channel the thoughts of a dead woman, but dressing up and impersonating her (‘materialising’ her, in the language of all three versions).

Before the narrative settles for becoming a cautionary tale, it addresses some interesting issues, and del Toro’s film especially feels a little lost at the point when it makes the transition, as if it wants to linger among the complications but knows it has to get back to the plot. One particular scene stands out in this respect. Cooper’s Carlisle (previously played by Tyrone Power) has left the world of the fairground, having accidentally (or not) killed Zeena’s partner, taking their codebook with him. He has become the Great Stanton, putting on his show in fancy nightclubs. Molly (Coleen Gray; Rooney Mara), a young woman from the fairground, is his partner: he plays the Zeena role and she collects the questions from the audience. Everything goes smoothly until the psychologist, all too symbolically called Lilith, appears in the audience. Helen Walker was pretty good in 1947, cool and tidy and scary, but Cate Blanchett inhabits the role with such relish for evil that she almost takes us into another landscape – let’s say, to linger in the timeframe, a land of Oz without a good witch in sight.

Lilith ups the stakes by saying Stanton and Molly are using ‘verbal signals of some sort’ and asking a question for herself. Can Stanton say what’s in her handbag? He replies that she has lipstick and a handkerchief in there. She snorts scornfully. ‘That’s easy enough, is it not?’ Then Stanton says there’s something else in the handbag too, ‘a small pistol, nickel-plated, ivory handle’, and goes on to speak, correctly, about the troubles she has had with her mother. This element of the scene appears only in the del Toro movie.

How did he know? ‘I can read a mark quick, find out what they want,’ Stanton tells Lilith later, when they are about to set up business together. There was something odd about the way she was holding the bag, and the rest was deduction. She asks how he knew about her mother. ‘Dames like you always have mommy issues.’ Or, as we might say, sometimes it rains on Thursdays. Then the two of them make a deal. ‘I give you a little information,’ she says, ‘and you tell me the truth.’ His truth is that like everyone else (in some scenarios) he murdered his father. At the beginning of the film we saw him drop a corpse below the floorboards of a little house on the prairie and set fire to the place, leaving it smoking and flaming in a very artistic long shot.

What the scene with the handbag and the gun suggests, and then lets go, is that we understand the world by accepting trickery that isn’t trickery as well as trickery that is. As Borges wrote memorably, ‘Who can boast of being a mere impostor?’ The answer is nearly everybody, and especially the Stanton Carlisles of the world. But then we can compare two of them, in two movies. Power was good at looking authentic, not so good at being mean. Cooper excels at looking shifty, which suggests that his victims are more gullible and needy than Power’s. Leaving out the money and the self-adulation, which game is more fun: deceiving the intelligent or deceiving the stupid?

The figure of the geek (in the old sense of a freak-show performer) plays an important role in this story. In all the versions he is an addict who has become a star act. Dafoe, the freak-show owner, asks rhetorically whether this abject creature is a man or a beast, and, as the man bites into the neck of a live chicken, says: ‘Folks’ll pay good money just to make themselves feel better.’ Folks love the chance to ‘look down’ on someone, literally in this case since the man is in a circular pit. But this isn’t the worst part of the story, and del Toro and his writer, Kim Morgan, follow Gresham’s novel very literally from this point on. Geeks aren’t born but made, as Dafoe explains. ‘You pick a guy and he aint a geek – he’s a drunk.’ The guy accepts the job of pretending to be a geek, and the freak-show owner supplies the booze. Then one day he withholds it, and the man caves in. Now he’s a real geek, for good. The condition of the addict and the owner’s complacent cruelty are bad enough, but the pride and pleasure the owner takes in his method may be even worse. Perhaps he has seen The Great Dictator after all.

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