Nightmare Alley First Look: Guillermo Del Toro Makes His First Film Noir

For his first film after winning the Academy Award for Best Picture for 2017's "The Shape of Water," director Guillermo del Toro is doing something he's never done before: making a film noir. The filmmaker calls "Nightmare Alley," which is slated for release later this year, "a very different movie" from the types of films he usually makes, which are tinged with the supernatural and often filled with creatures and ghosts. But don't expect a hard-boiled story about a guy with a gun and a mesmerizing femme fatale. 

"I'm not going to do any of the clichés associated with the genre," del Toro explained in a new interview with Vanity Fair. "I'm not going to do the Venetian blinds, and voiceover, and detectives walking with fedoras in wet streets. I wanted to do the universe of the novel, which is a little gritty, but also strangely magical. It has a very strange, mystical allure — and mythical. I was very attracted to that possibility."

What is Nightmare Alley About?

The original 1947 film starring Tyrone Power was based on a 1946 book by William Lindsey Gresham, and more than anything, that book is serving as the jumping-off point for del Toro and his co-writer Kim Morgan ("The Forbidden Room"). "From the beginning, our interest was to go for the novel, but it's almost impossible to adapt because it has a very kaleidoscopic, very peculiar voice," del Toro said. "You would need a six-hour miniseries and shifting points of view, and this and that. We started from the novel, and didn't want to do a remake as much as a new adaptation."

The story follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a small-time carnival worker who is desperate to burst into high society and make his mark. He begins the movie working at a morally bankrupt traveling show run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) – the type of outfit that features a "geek show," a revolting component of the carnival that involves a human being biting the heads off of live chickens in front of a crowd. Carlisle learns a valuable code while working at the carnival: a practical tactic which allows a female performer (Toni Collette) to seem like a mind-reader in front of a crowd, when in actuality she is simply decoding messages from a counterpart in real time based on sentence construction and pitch that delivers her the secrets she needs. (An example: Cooper could overhear someone in the crowd talking about living on a farm, select that person as the subject of the performer's next mind reading, and loudly announce to her something like: "THIS man has a conundrum. Can you help?" Based on the specific words he used and the specific way he said them, Collette's character would know that the subject lives on a farm.)

Armed with this knowledge and a young ingenue (Rooney Mara) to aid him, Carlisle heads into the big city and steps into the spotlight as the performer instead of the assistant. In this version of the story, Carlisle puts his skills to use by grifting rich people and exploiting their traumas and secrets to further his own career, leading a psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), to first try to prove he's a fake, but then ultimately get sucked into his web of lies. How far will Carlisle go to get what he wants? Can he be redeemed? Does that question even matter?

"Thematically, I'm very interested in exploring the genre from a different point of view," del Toro says. "Instead of a femme fatale, I have three very strong female figures and an homme fatale."

Be sure to head over to Vanity Fair to see some more images from the film. "Nightmare Alley" is slated to hit theaters on December 3, 2021.