WEIRDLAND: Nightmare Alley (1947), Remake by Guillermo del Toro with Leonardo DiCaprio

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Nightmare Alley (1947), Remake by Guillermo del Toro with Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio and Guillermo del Toro are nearing a collaboration on “Nightmare Alley,” the director’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name. Del Toro is developing “Nightmare Alley” at Fox Searchlight, the studio that handled the production and distribution of his Oscar-winner “The Shape of Water.” As first reported by Variety, DiCaprio has entered final negotiations to star in the lead role of mentalist and con artist Stanton “Stan” Carlisle. Tyrone Power played the character in the 1947 film adaptation, directed by Edmund Goulding and released by 20th Century Fox. Del Toro stepped back from filmmaking after “The Shape of Water” won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” is now his second feature directorial effort in development following his stop-motion passion project “Pinocchio,” which has taken up shop at Netflix. Source:

William Lindsay Gresham (author of Nightmare Alley) was born in Baltimore on August 20, 1909. His family moved briefly to Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1916, then to New York City, where he graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn in 1926. Gresham’s was a tortured mind and a tormented life, and he sought to banish his demons through a maze of dead-end ways, from Marxism to psychoanalysis to Christianity to Alcoholics Anonymous. He was also an early enthusiast of Scientology but later denounced the religion as another kind of spook racket. From these demons came his novel Nightmare Alley (1946), one of the underground classics of American literature. He wrote one more novel, Limbo Tower (1949), which went largely unnoticed. Three nonfiction books followed: Monster Midway (1953), Houdini (1959), and The Book of Strength (1961). Nightmare Alley brought Gresham fame and fortune, but he lost it all. The second of his three wives, the poet Joy Davidman, left him in 1953 for the British author C. S. Lewis. William L. Gresham killed himself in New York City on September 14, 1962.

“I’m a hustler, God damn it. Do you understand that, you frozen-faced witch? Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough. If you don’t have it you’re the end man on the daisy chain. I’m going to get it if I have to bust every bone in my head doing it. I’m going to milk it out of those chumps and take them for the gold in their teeth before I’m through. You don’t dare yell copper on me because if you spilled anything about me all your other Johns would get the wind up their necks. You’ve got enough stuff in that bastard tin file cabinet to blow ’em all up. I know what you’ve got in there—society dames with the clap, bankers who take it up the ass, actresses that live on hop, people with idiot kids. You’ve got it all down. If I had that stuff I’d give ’em cold readings that would have ’em crawling on their knees to me. And you sit there out of this world with that dead-pan face and listen to the chumps puking their guts out day after day for peanuts. If I knew that much I’d stop when I’d made a million bucks and not a minute sooner. You’re a chump too, blondie. They’re all Johns. They’re asking for it. Well, I’m here to give it out.”

“I’ve been shouted at before, Mr. Carlisle. But you don’t really know any gangsters. You’d be afraid of them. Just as you’re afraid of me. You’re full of rage, aren’t you? You feel you hate me, don’t you? You’d like to come off that couch and strike me, wouldn’t you?—but you can’t. You’re quite helpless with me. I’m one person you can’t outguess. You can’t fool me with cheesecloth ghosts; you can’t impress me with fake yoga. You’re just as helpless with me as you felt seeing your mother run away with another man when you wanted to go with her. I think you went with her. You ran away, didn’t you? You went into show business, didn’t you? And when you start your act you run your hands over your hair, just like Humphries. He was a big, strong, attractive man, Humphries. I think you have become Humphries —in your mind.” 

The brain held him; it dosed him with grains of wild joy, measured out in milligrams of words, the turn of her mouth corner, one single, lustful flash from the gray eyes before the scales of secrecy came over them again. The brain seemed always present, always hooked to his own by an invisible gold wire, thinner than spider’s silk. It sent its charges into his mind and punished him with a chilling wave of cold reproof. It would let him writhe in helpless misery and then, just before the breaking point, would send the warm current through to jerk him back to life and drag him, tumbling over and over through space, to the height of a snow mountain where he could see all the plains of the earth, spread out before him, and all the power of the cities and the ways of men. All were his, could be his, would be his, unless the golden thread broke and sent him roaring into the dark chasm of fear again. The wind had grown colder; they stood up. He lit cigarettes and gave her one and they passed on, circling the obelisk, walking slowly past the blank, unfinished wall of the Museum’s back, along the edge of the park where the busses trailed their lonely lights away uptown.

He took her hand in his and slid it into the pocket of his topcoat, and for a moment, as they walked, it was warm and a little moist, almost yielding, almost, to the mind’s tongue, sweet-salty, yielding, musky; then in an instant it changed, it chilled, it became the hand of a dead woman in his pocket, as cold as the hand he once molded of rubber and stretched on the end of his reaching rod, icy from a rubber sack of cracked ice in his pocket, straight into the face of a believer’s skeptical husband. Now the loneliness grew inside him, like a cancer, like a worm of a thousand branches, running down his nerves, creeping under his scalp, tying two arms together and squeezing his brain in a noose, pushing into his loins and twisting them until they ached with need and not-having, with wanting and not-daring, with thrust into air, with hand-gripping futility—orgasm and swift-flooding shame, hostile in its own right, ashamed of shame. 

“We come like a breath of wind over the fields of morning. We go like a lamp flame caught by a blast from a darkened window. In between we journey from table to table, from bottle to bottle, from bed to bed. We suck, we chew, we swallow, we lick, we try to mash life into us like an am-am-amoeba God damn it! Somebody lets us loose like a toad out of a matchbox and we jump and jump and jump and the guy always behind us, and when he gets tired he stomps us to death and our guts squirt out on each side of the boot of All Merciful Providence. The son-of-a-bitch! What sense does it all make? What sort of God would put us here in this goddamned, stinking slaughterhouse of a world? Some guy that likes to tear the wings off flies? What use is there in living and starving and fighting the next guy? It’s a nut house. And the biggest loonies are at the top.” 

Stan felt the wall of the alley jar against his shoulder, felt his feet leave the ground and the dark weight fall on him; but the only life in him now was pouring out through his hands and wrists. A bundle of astro-readings had fallen out and lay scattered on the stones, but he couldn’t pick them up. He walked, very straight and precise, toward the light at the other end of the alley. Everything was sharp and clear now and he didn’t even need a drink any more. The freights would be risky. He might try the baggage rack of a long-haul bus, under the tarpaulin. He had traveled there once before. He raced toward the light at the end of the alley, but there was nothing to be afraid of. He had always been here, running down the alley and it didn’t matter; this was all there was any time, anywhere, just an alley and a light... —"Nightmare Alley" (1946) by William Lindsay Gresham 

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