Nightmare Alley: Guillermo del Toro and film noir in 10 references

With “Nightmare Alley”, Guillermo del Toro abandons fantasy and signs a pure film noir. And he returned to ten of his influences with Collider.

Four years after winning the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro is back on the big screen. And there is change in his cinema. Because Nightmare Alley is a pure film noir, devoid of any supernatural element, which is a great first for the Mexican filmmaker.

Certainly, the fact that the first half of the story takes place in a carnival in the middle of fairground monsters allows it to stay in familiar waters and create an atmosphere on the edge of the fantastic. But then everything changes when the charismatic Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) leaves his adopted family to join the New York elite of the 1940s, and try to swindle a rich man.

With this thriller also led by Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Willem Dafoe, Guillermo del Toro draws on other references and pays homage to one of the major genres of Hollywood’s golden age. At the microphone of Collider, he looks back on ten feature films that inspired him when it came to giving birth to Nightmare Alley.



Nightmare Alley: Guillermo del Toro and film noir in 10 referencesNightmare Alley: Guillermo del Toro and film noir in 10 references

What is it about ? – When he arrives in the small town of Walton, Eric Stanton is penniless. He meets Stella, a hauntingly beautiful cafe waitress. While falling in love with the latter, Eric seduces June Ellis, whom everything opposes to the first. An arranged marriage could get him out of trouble but Stella is found dead…

The opinion of Guillermo del Toro – “[Le film] was directed by Otto Preminger after Laura. I love it so much that I indirectly reference it in Nightmare Alley, when the character played by Richard Jenkins talks about how Alice Faye got bored and let it all go once and for all. Because it was really the film that made her decide to leave the industry.”

“[Crime passionnel] and Nightmare Alley have many indirect connections. The main character’s first name is Stanton [nom de famille de celui joué par Dana Andrews en 1945, ndlr]. And there’s an element of the carnival seer who looks like John Carradine.”

NIAGARA (1953)

Twentieth Century Fox

What is it about ? – Ray and Polly Cutler are staying in Niagara Falls. They meet George and Rose Loomis, a couple on the verge of breaking up. Rose announces the disappearance of her husband to the Cutlers and has the unpleasant surprise of recognizing the corpse of her lover in the morgue…

The opinion of Guillermo del Toro – “One of the most beautiful films to watch. The color is stunning. A very important part of the genesis of Marilyn Monroe. It plays with desire and the question of gender roles, in an incredibly strange and psychosexual story. [Niagara] would make a perfect double bill with Cold Sweats.”


Park Circus

What is it about ? – A safe breaker who witnessed the murder of his father as a child, finds the opportunity to avenge him.

The opinion of Guillermo del Toro – “A truly relentless film noir from Samuel Fuller. Highly energetic. It’s about a boy obsessed with writing about his past and the menacing father figure that hangs over him. Most film noir characters , when faced with incredible odds, bet on one side or another. Whether they’re right or wrong, they go all out. And there’s this uncompromising side here.”


Swashbuckler Movies

What is it about ? – A gang of gangsters organize the heist of the betting box during a horse race…

The opinion of Guillermo del Toro – “One of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpieces. Sometimes in a film noir you have a scene in which money, which has become an icon, loses its meaning. And the mother of all these neolistic feelings , it’s The Ultimate Raid. Sterling Hayden is perfect as this hardcore badass from start to finish. His last line in the film is fantastic.”

DETOUR (1945)

Films Without Borders

What is it about ? – A bar pianist will, in spite of himself, take the identity of a motorist who picked him up but died suddenly. The motorist in question is the heir of a dying millionaire whom his family has not seen for years…

The opinion of Guillermo del Toro – “Edgar G. Ulmer was a very quick director, perfect for a B-movie economy. There’s a scene[de Détour] with Tom Neal in which he commits manslaughter with a telephone wire. And I echo it in a scene [de Nightmare Alley] between Lilith and Stan. It’s a little quote. What matters is how relentless it is.”


United Artists

What is it about ? – Following a twist of fate, a woman comes across a suitcase containing $60,000. She’s determined to keep the money, even if it means murder…

The opinion of Guillermo del Toro – “For me, this is Lizabeth Scott’s best film, the best role she has had. [Elle joue] a woman who is so tired of her role as an obedient housewife in society that when she discovers an escape in the form of a sack full of money, she becomes a far tougher character than all the men in the film. “

“No other man can stop her or outsmart her or match her. She’s a fascinating character, incredibly powerful. It’s directed by Byron Haskin, who sci-fi fans will remember thanks to War of the Worlds, but who is an incredibly effective director.”


RKO Radio Pictures Inc.

What is it about ? – Helen Brent leaves the hotel she was staying at shortly after the scene of a mysterious double homicide. On her train taking her back to her family and her husband, she meets a strange and aggressive stranger. However, the young woman falls under his spell and decides to see him again. He even ends up meeting his family. The man manages to seduce Helen’s half-sister…

The opinion of Guillermo del Toro – “Born to Kill by Robert Wise is a film that is not celebrated but which I find fantastic. The film has some of the most stunning and violent murders seen at the time. Or for any era. Lawrence Tierney is one of those characters capable of embodying absolute cruelty. And Claire Trevor plays his equal.”

“I asked bradley cooper and Cate Blanchett to watch them and watch the way they interact, for how their two characters had to be on an equal footing when they meet. The two characters in Born to Kill are beasts that run amok in each other’s presence. What I also find fascinating in this film is that Claire Trevor embodies a woman who is well placed in society. That’s what makes it interesting.”


Columbia Pictures

What is it about ? – For a professional killer and his associate, all means are good to find sachets of heroin hidden on three innocent passengers of an airplane.

The opinion of Guillermo del Toro – “A film by Don Siegel which, even today, is relentless and absolutely brutal. The characters who should not be killed are killed without mercy. Eli Wallach is incredible. Fierce, without loyalty and capable of going off the rails at any instant. [La Ronde du crime] takes place in San Francisco and portrays it in a unique, threatening way.”

“In the same way that Cold Sweats showed her in a romantic and gothic way, this version [de San Francisco] is dirty, wild and stripped down. And the final chase is fantastic.”


Warner Bros. Pictures

What is it about ? – The virtuous captain of a boat is faced with financial problems that plunge him into illegal activities in order to maintain his ship’s payments.

The opinion of Guillermo del Toro – “John Garfield brings a raw and realistic side to this role. He plays a man torn between what he should and should not do, between what he has and what he could have. Essential conflicts in the film noir, and which Nightmare Alley relies heavily on. [Trafic en haute mer] is directed by the great Michael Curtiz [auteur de Casablanca, ndlr], but taken from Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have It or Not To Have It.”


Columbia Pictures

What is it about ? – James and Gurston go hunting but they come across two bandits who manage to fool them. They kill Gurston with James’ rifle, who manages to escape. Problem, the two thugs are still on his trail and the police are also looking for him because they believe him guilty of the murder of his friend…

The opinion of Guillermo del Toro – “A great film by Jacques Tourneur. He revolutionized horror by making it elegant and full of threats. He worked on the shadows in a magnificent way. But the main interest of this film lies in its search for dialogue. It has tough, raw dialogue that feels authentic, and is beautifully said.”

“You can see Anne Bancroft in one of her first roles, and a very good one. It’s based on a novel by David Goodis, who wrote the screenplay for Night Riders with Humphrey Bogart. C He’s a very interesting pulp writer, with a great ear for dialogue, and a lot of empathy for underdogs and misfits, which was very important to me on Nightmare Alley.”

“We had characters who live on the fringes of society, who manage to fit in, or not, with the urban brutality of Buffalo when they leave the carnival.”

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