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Opinion How ‘Nightmare Alley’ scared up a Best Picture nomination

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper star in the film "Nightmare Alley." (Searchlight Pictures/Kerry Hayes/AP)

Of all the Oscar nominations this year, “Nightmare Alley” earning a Best Picture nod was the most pleasant surprise. Though the film was a little lost on its initial release — coming out the exact same day as “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the sixth-highest-grossing film of all time will have that effect — Guillermo del Toro’s picture earned a renewed burst of attention with a black-and-white rerelease late last month that emphasized the film’s noir credentials and made it a must-see in theaters for true cinephiles.

Based on the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, del Toro’s film is a tour through the dark heart of showbiz and the human psyche. Starring Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a drifter-turned-grifter whose mentalism act is itself lifted from a man he kills, “Nightmare Alley” is about the lies we tell others — and ourselves — as we dip into the ethical muck to earn some lucre. Carlisle meets his match in the form of psychologist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who’s running some scams of her own and sets Carlisle up with the wealthy, mob-connected Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).

At its core, “Nightmare Alley” is about the human need to be fooled, the desire we all have to believe a happy lie. And it’s about the people who promulgate such lies, the crooks who prey on that desire and, in doing so, deform themselves — because a liar eventually has to buy into his own lies, lest he give up the game. And once you start believing your own hype, well, look out. Del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan deserve an enormous amount of credit for hewing closer to the novel’s original ending than did the 1947 movie adaptation; it is delightfully and distressingly dark.

All of which is to say that “Nightmare Alley” is a not particularly uplifting movie that’s aimed squarely at adults, which makes it a hard sell to theatrical audiences these days. This isn’t a family picture such as “Sing 2,” which can hang around for months and rack up grosses, and it’s not a comic book movie a la “No Way Home” that appeals to children of all ages. No wonder, then, that it looked as though the film was dying on the vine.

Until, that is, Searchlight Pictures took a bold step. Understanding the stark power of the images he had captured, del Toro released a black-and-white version of the film in some of the nicest theaters in a handful of cities. Understanding the buzz these showings were earning the film — and recognizing the paucity of new releases as the omicron variant washed over the country and other distributors grew skittish — Searchlight took the black-and-white cut nationwide, adding more than 700 screens in the movie’s seventh week of release.

Now, this didn’t lead to an enormous influx of box-office cash. But it did dramatically increase the visibility of the picture; all of a sudden, everyone who mattered was talking about this stark new “vision in darkness and light,” as the cut was called. It gave folks another reason to see “Nightmare Alley” in theaters, yes, but more importantly it gave people another reason to keep talking about it. Buzz means more than bucks when it comes to the Oscars.

And talk about it they should. Seeing the picture on an enormous screen in black and white is an entirely different experience. There’s something chilling about Cooper’s eyes drained of color; his Carlisle has a new snakelike quality. The smoky atmosphere of the Art Deco office in which Dr. Ritter does her dirty work has the feel of classic Hollywood, drawing a direct line to the this film’s noir ancestors.

“‘Nightmare Alley’ is unique for noir,” Eddie Muller writes of the 1947 adaptation in “Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.” “There’s no gunplay, no gangsters, and the lone ‘crime’ — the death of Pete — is handled with ambiguity. … ‘Nightmare Alley’ presaged a world of televangelists, home shopping hucksterism, and New Age charlatans.”

If that version was a vision of the world to come, then the 2021 iteration from del Toro and Morgan is a mirror held up to our own time, one in which a not-insubstantial portion of the population is looking for a mountebank to tell them pretty lies and soothe their internal anguish. And it’s one we, understandably, flinch from. But everyone deserves to see Stanton Carlisle’s ruined, anguished face projected in cold black and white, 40 feet high, gibbering uncontrollably as he accepts the fate he’s made for himself.

It’s a warning to do better, a warning you won’t soon forget.