Nightmare Alley’s Art Deco Set Design

Nightmare Alley Art Deco Set Design
Photograph by Gage Skidmore

Nightmare Alley’s Art Deco Set Design

The two worlds of Director Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley feel at times like textural contrasts. “It was almost like working on two films,” according to Tamara Deverell, the film’s production designer, “from the carny world where everything had a faded patina and was a little rough around the edges … to high society, where we wanted everything to be really rich and sumptuous and enticing.”

Nightmare Alley is Del Toro’s adaptation of the 1947 film based on William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, and his first attempt at film noir. Bradley Cooper stars as the carnival magnate and con man Stanton Carlisle who falls for Molly, another carney played by Mara Rooney, and takes her to Buffalo in search of bigger, more lucrative cons. There he encounters Cate Blachett’s character Lilith Ritter, a psychologist who proves to be a formidable adversary, and whose power and elegance are what Carlisle seeks.

And while the two clearly delineated worlds seem to contrast the worn and the elegant, it is Del Toro’s vision of Art Deco that stitches the two settings together. Buffalo features, after all, some of the most important Art Deco architecture in the United States. While the upscale world of 1940s Buffalo may have the more direct claim to the style, the carnival setting of the film features bold use of rich colors, especially reds, that were specifically omitted from the city setting except in a few instances, and features Decoesque focus on geometric design. A ferris wheel restored from the period and a carousel rescued from a barn feature largely and become symbolic of Carlisle’s evil.

Deverell suggests the transition from the exotic Deco use of color to a world of the style when she says, “red is a very symbolic gesture in many instances and there’s this very particular red we use . . . It’s not just any blood red but it’s a pigeon black blood red from the Chinese dynasty. With Zeena, we wanted to use yellow and blues for her tent. And then later on we are in the Art Deco of the 1940s with Lilith.” It is in the city lare of Lilith that we indeed encounter the essence of the style.

Blachett’s office, based on the Brooklyn Museum’s Weil-Worgelt room (designed by Henri Redard) is a study in Art Deco, from the wall tiles to the furniture. “It’s a combination of straight Art Deco lines and curves, which is very much a Guillermo thing,” Deverell said, adding “Every line and curve, every piece of furniture resonates with that 1930s Art Deco era.” Blachett was reportedly amazed by the design of the space.

Even the costumes speak to the style. Costume designer Luis Sequeira and his team spent hours creating the contrasting worn carnival look with the satins, velvets, and silks of the Buffalo setting. Cooper’s move into the world of upscale nightclubs necessitated a shift in wardrobe that included “a raft of luxurious tuxes and suits for him, worn with showy deco-patterned ties.” And, of course, Blanchett epitomizes the luxury and sensuous of Art Deco in the evening gowns and suits she wears.

While the film, as described by Willem Dafoe, who plays carnival hawker Clem Hoatley, is “an indictment of a certain kind of ambition, or a certain kind of capitalism,” its visual world is an immersion in sensual textures, luxurious colors, and cleverly symbolic geometries. Sequeira describes it as looking “more like a lush costume drama than a hard-boiled crime flick.” Whether you’re a fan of film noir or an Art Deco aficionado looking for a fix, the December 17 release of Nightmare Alley is bound to please.

Ivan Young is a writer from Happy Writers, Co.

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