alley of nightmares is a seedy film noir world of greed, regret and psychosis.
The film follows the story of Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who is out of luck, who appears on screen as mysterious stranger. His chance arrival at a dirty carnival in 1939 snowballed into a burgeoning career. Using trickery to appear omniscient, his act takes New York City by storm.
This Depression-era world was constructed by set designer Tamara Deverell (Cabinet of Curiosities, Star Trek: Discovery), who was nominated for an Academy Award in Production Design for her work on alley of nightmares. Deverell led the film’s design, recreating environments with pinpoint historical accuracy, capturing the sickening reality of midwestern carnivals of that era and the rich influence of art deco furniture and architecture in New York City.
(Yes, you should expect spoilers ahead.)
Although uncredited for the work, Deverell actually developed some of the sets for director Guillermo del Toro’s previous Oscar-nominated film, form of water. Del Toro is famous for his films ranging from high art to comic books, all of which tend to focus on otherworldly creatures as often misunderstood heroes or villains.
“For Guillermo, [Nightmare Alley] was a different movie,” says Deverell. “It wasn’t a creature movie. The monsters were all male and female, really.
Indeed, from the first scenes of the film, alley of nightmares it hurts my stomach to watch. From the first frames, I suspect that Carlisle has just arrived in purgatory. Even as he escapes poverty and finds himself surrounded by riches, a sense of foreboding fills every scene and setting. Because sometimes your dreams end up in nightmares.
The Returning Carnival
The film begins with Carlisle arriving by train to a dusty carnival somewhere in Central America. It’s not a fantasy wonderland. It’s dirty, with tents stained the same dull brown as the floor.
“Quite honestly, we started digging into a lot of research. We had excellent sources with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian of original carnivals in the 1920s and 1930s. I wanted to make it as real as possible,” says Deverell. “My historical memory, the memory you create when you think about that time in history, had it as a very dusty and dirty and sad place. I was informed by photographs, paintings and illustrations of the era.
To build this carnival and pretty much everything else in the movie, the team really built it. Rather than computer-generated graphics, the film relied on the physical construction of period-style sets and furniture. This meant hand-painting the carnival banners and distressing the tents to give them an aged look.
“Since it was a morally dark movie, I just accepted that,” Deverell says. “That means richer colors for me.” Indeed, the film is saturated all the way, with a similar but infinitely more colorful contrast than a classic black and white film noir.
Deverell also used the carnival to introduce the film’s key motif: the circles. The circles play out visually, probably as a way to cement the circular nature of the plot itself.
She points out that this circle pattern begins in the geek pit, a preposterous but real place in carnivals, where a geek – an otherwise unskilled carnival worker (who was often an alcoholic paid for in booze)—would throw a live animal and bite off the head. The pit is designed as a circle, a hint that Carlisle will actually return there at the end of the film. Deverell spices up more hoops throughout the carnival, but his other most notable placement is in a simulated electric chair designed by Carlisle for the carnival show.
Behind the chair spins a large circular canvas, which does nothing in the film to conduct electricity, and is meant to serve as additional theater for the audience. It turns out that this sneaky staging relies on some historical accuracy.
“I took this directly from a photo of inventor Nicolas Tesla – there is a photo that has thissays Deverell. “I showed it to Guillermo, we tried it in illustrations, and we made it so you could spin it.” Later, Carlisle puts on his show at a swanky supper club that Deverell designed to be a big circle (or a fancier geek pit).
The Perfectly Imperfect Vintage Neon
A second visual motif introduced in this part of the film was neon, and it’s admittedly a bit jarring on screen. While the carnival is in tatters, its entrance is an intricate, glowing neon arch — a touch that seems too grand for the fair’s dilapidated state. (Again, I wonder if this carnival was a reality outside of ours.)
“This whole neon entrance was largely a last-minute, mind-blowing request from Guillermo, to pay homage to Hitchcock. Strangers on a trainwho has a carnival [with neon],” she explains.
For Deverell, delivering this neon was a major challenge as everything was a custom job. ” That takes time ! It was complicated. We broke it several times,” she says. “Even Bradley Cooper leaned on it once, and one of the bulbs cracked.”
The neon was particularly fragile as it was fashioned in its traditional early 20th century style, to capture the authentic brightness of neon from that era. “Now it’s all block plexi,” says Deverell, alluding to the use of composite blocking to stabilize the neon signs as opposed to the delicate hand-twisted glass tubes. “We built it with our old-school, neon guy without it being wrapped up, which is part of why we were so nervous about it, and that may cause issues. But to make a period film, you have to do it in a period way. Even the color of neon, its particular red, was a color that existed at the time.
Neon is also used later in the film, although a large neon sign for the film’s supper club was never shown. Most notably, you can spot a large neon cross in an alley where Carlisle dumps a sick, near-death geek.
The cross was actually inspired by events that took place decades earlier, when Deverell was artistic director of del Toro’s 1997 film. Imitate. This film features a neon cross, which del Toro had spotted on a Jesus Saves sign in Toronto. The director asked Deverell to bring him back for alley of nightmares, saying, “Do you remember that cross? I like this cross.
“It’s our own little Easter egg,” Deverell says.
But filming the neon cross, especially in a scene where it’s raining at night, was tricky. “I received a phone call from our producer informing me that the [electric technicians] had trouble controlling the neon. It sparkled,” says Deverell. So the sign made with love was going to be replaced by digital effects, that is, until the editors, and presumably del Toro, saw the results. A half-burnt panel added a haunting element to the scene that a fully functional panel could not.
The office that really is a nightmarish alley
After Carlisle leaves the carnival, the film’s backdrop changes completely. We are ushered from the dusty Midwest into the chic world of coastal upper class. Given that this was the Art Deco era, these environments are filled with this rich, embellished style, which celebrates humanistic curves and proportions alongside harsh, industrial angles.
The office of psychiatrist Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who, after being publicly humiliated by Carlisle on her mentalist show, works hard to gain his trust, only destroys her life. His office is a large marble-floored tomb. His office, however, features a rich wood veneer wall that is both completely real and painstakingly handmade.
“When I first put pen to paper in my sketches, [the office] was half the size it ended up being. We were literally there in front of the computer, our scenographer [and I], and continued to lengthen the set. ‘Let’s make it longer, let’s make it longer!’ said Deverell. “Guillermo really wanted this alley. It became a theme. Everything is long and narrow. Creating the perfect furniture to fill such a large space was tricky on its own, though it also created the opportunity for jaw-dropping objects like the office’s bespoke lounge chair, which anchors the space like a looming black hole. . Deverell also notes how easily Blanchett navigates her way through this large ensemble after carefully choreographing each beat.
As for the wood-veneer wall behind his desk, it was inspired by an installation at the Brooklyn Museum, where Deverell visited, nose to glass, studying an art deco desk that is on display. She credits the museum’s curators, who answered all sorts of questions she had about the use of wood at the time, with bringing this wall to life. By the time Ritter appears onscreen, she’s inhabiting all but another stereotypical wood and brass psychiatrist’s office. This wooden facade anchors the era and the character at the same time.
“It was really by chance that the veneers turned out to be these kind of Rorschach visuals,” says Deverell, noting how the parallel design of the wooden backdrop at the end of the book mirrors the ink blots of Rorschach. “I had no intention of doing it.”
The wooden wall contrasts with the office, with a cold marble floor that keeps the whole scene in suspense. Truth be told, Deverell had always imagined this floor would be carpeted, because carpeting was all the rage in Europe, and Ritter’s character would have been aware of the trends.
“We almost finished the set, laid the carpet and it looked elegant. But you wanted this tough side for this tough woman, who is as much of a monster as anyone in the movie. It’s a crook facing the crook! said Deverell. “In the end, we just took him out because of the click, click, click of his heels.”
alley of nightmares is streaming on HBO Max now.