NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Cinematography by Dan Laustsen
The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot is back (for a four-week miniseries)! I participated in the last couple of seasons from a few years ago and enjoyed focusing on the cinematography of the assigned films, so I’m glad the series has returned momentarily. This comeback season kicks off with the new adaptation of Nightmare Alley, which earned 4 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography. I’ll be honest here; I’m actually not too high on this movie as I was hoping I’d be, since I love the 1947 film with Tyrone Power and I generally enjoy what I’ve seen from Guillermo del Toro. I also wasn’t too impressed with the cinematography by Dan Laustsen, preferring his previous Oscar-nominated collaboration with del Toro in The Shape of Water; but don’t worry, there were still plenty of shots I did like in this film. To keep it positive before going into my picks, I will say I did admire the production design and thought that the Oscar nomination was deserved! And the ending in this film is more in step with the novel and fits the story much better than the older film (which did have to adhere to the Production Code at the time). Anyway, with that said, I will touch a little on spoilers in my write-ups for my favorite shots, so beware before reading.
This shot comes during Stan Carlisle’s (Bradley Cooper) first night in his newfound home at a traveling carnival, and it’s a great way of foreshadowing where the character will end up by the time the credits roll. As he and other carnival workers try to track down the show’s geek, he walks into a funhouse themed around hell, he’s surrounded by imagery of the seven deadly sins and mirrors with signs exclaiming for sinners to take a look at themselves. What I like about this particular shot is the eye that seemingly watches as he looks around, shining his light on his surroundings. It’s moments after this shot when he finds himself following down the geek’s path.
One of the most intriguing elements of Nightmare Alley is the relationship between Stan and psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), and seeing how it evolves as the story progresses. It seems as though Stan, who at this point in the story now has a successful psychic act at an elite nightclub, has met his match in Dr. Ritter, as they both appear to be on the same wavelength in conning people out of money. But what he doesn’t realize is that she’s at least one step ahead of him, and as this shot from her office shows, she’s always on alert and watching his every move as he puts his trust in her.
Before getting into my pick for the best shot, I just want to highlight a few other shots that I considered for this slot. I had a feeling my favorite would be from this sequence of the film, where we first see Stan performing in his new act two years after leaving the carnival. It’s also where we first meet Dr. Lillith Ritter, and it’s such a star introduction to Cate Blanchett in the film, who has such a strong presence for the rest of the film’s running time.
I picked this shot as my favorite from this scene because I just love the way the spotlight is positioned behind Stan, making it look as though he’s emitting his illusive mental powers onto the unsuspecting audience. But he’s also not fully aware of what’s going on around him, only keeping a blind eye focused on what he’s doing and not looking ahead to the consequences that will come of his actions.
Be sure to check out what others have chosen as their best shot from Nightmare Alley here!