When on-the-run drifter Stanton Carlisle stumbles into a seedy, travelling carnival in the late 1930s, he begins an adventure that might not end well. Ingratiating himself with the show’s resident fortune-telling act, he manages to develop a flair for reading people, a talent that naive audiences see as mind-reading. Eventually he sets off in search of fame and richer pickings along with Molly, the carny’s electric-girl act (and the film’s rare sympathetic character). He hits the top, performing for upscale audiences, but when he meets Dr. Lilith Ritter, a big-city psychiatrist with wealthy clients and her own way with a grift, he more than meets his match.
Based on a 1946 book and a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power, this is a dark film noir that won’t appeal to everyone. That earlier film clocked in at under two hours, but this new version is a challenging 150-minute slog that feels even longer. It would have profited from a thirty-minute trim. As a review in The Times of London observed, it’s full of “very bad people, doing very bad things, very slowly.”
Despite the length, there’s much to admire here. The cast is brilliant, and Director Guillermo del Toro knows how to work with his designers and cinematographers to get the look he wants. Shot in a sepia tone common to period pieces, the colors punch through in the carnival scenes though later turning more monochromatic and ominous. Blacks are rich and deep in the many dark scenes, and while the HDR isn’t prominent it does have its moments, such as the night lights at the carnival that pop out impressively in their otherwise dark, gloomy setting. The film was also released in black-and-white in selected theaters for an authentic noir look, but it’s not available in that format on disc (nor in streaming. as far as we know).
Here and there the Dolby Atmos soundtrack takes center stage, such as where Molly is wowing the crowd with flying electric sparks in her lightening-in-a-bottle carny act. But for the most part the music, effects, and dialogue simply do what’s needed to support the film. At one point I heard sirens in the far distance and had to pause the player to confirm that they were in the soundtrack (they were) and not real. The film is full of such subtleties.
Extras are limited to three behind-the-scenes “Making Of” shorts. And while interesting, they add up to less than 25 minutes.
Ultra HD Blu-ray
Studio: Disney/Buena Vista, 2021
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HDR Format: HDR10
Audio Format: Dolby Atmos with TrueHD 7.1 core
Length: 150 minutes
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette