Friday, October 3, 2014


John Farrow, 1949
Starring: Ray Milland, Audrey Totter, Thomas Mitchell

Joseph Foster, an honest district attorney, is trying to convict a local gangster. When all seems lost, he gets some surprise help from a strange man named Nick Beal, who emerges from the fog to help Foster find a series of accounting files hidden at a wharf warehouse. Because of this, Foster prosecutes successfully and is soon offered the chance to become governor. He continues reluctantly to accept Beal's help, though his wife Martha is deeply suspicious of the man. Regardless, Beal's assured assistance and Foster's continued success begins to change Foster and he becomes more greedy and selfish. When his wife and friends become estranged from him, he realizes that something diabolical may be afoot with Beal, but Foster may be in too deep to free himself...

Basically a film noir version of Faust or The Devil and Daniel Webster moved from New England farm life into the world of urban politics, Alias Nick Beal is an excellent effort from director John Farrow. It seems particularly strange that the film has fallen into such obscurity and it's not yet available on DVD. The strong, subtle script from John Latimer (The Glass Key, Night Has A Thousand Eyes, The Big Clock) is very much like a cross between Faust and The Glass Key, a mix of fantasy-horror and political intrigue, backstabbing, and murder. While the blending of fantasy and noir didn't occur very often, there is a touch of it in Nightmare Alley and a heaping dose in Farrow's own Night Has a Thousand Eyes, as well as other film gris like Between Two Worlds.

Unequivocally, Beal is Satan. He doesn't do anything overtly supernatural and is certainly not as ham-fisted as something like Al Pacino's performance in The Devil's Advocate. Rather, the use of an incarnation of the Devil works so well here partly because of the careful, believable screenwriting, but also because of an incredible performance from Ray Milland. Previously, Milland was cast as the good-hearted, if morally ambiguous protagonist in films like Ministry of Fear, The Lost Weekend, and The Big Clock. Here he uses this ambiguity, the “gray area” that Mr. Beal speaks of in the film, blended with suave, handsome, and insidious charm to work his evil. Beal doesn't do anything overt, but is curiously omniscient and appears and disappears at will.

Setting the story within the world of politics was an obvious, if brilliant choice, as it is easy to believe that politics, corruption, and moral decay go hand-in-hand. Beal's acts, which include bribery, murder, and prostitution (he hires and dolls up a prostitute to tempt Foster), are well within the realm of American politics throughout history. Here, evil is insidious, almost banal. The phrase “banality of evil” was used by Hannah Arendt in reference to Adolf Eichmann and the bureaucracy that helped make the Holocaust possible. Bureaucracy is at work here, too. I think the film's only major flaw is the involvement of Reverend Garfield (George Macready of Gilda and Farrow's The Big Clock), the only character who seems to think that Beal is the Devil. He makes an impossible leap of reason and suggests to Foster that he might recognize Beal from a medieval portrait of the Devil, which seems absurd at best. The reluctance or outright refusal to believe in the supernatural – a trope used in horror films from the '60s and onward – would have worked well here, particularly if Foster was the only one who suspected Beal and the others viewed this as a sign of paranoid and encroaching madness.

In addition to excellent direction from Farrow – certainly some of his best work – and a spellbinding performance from Ray Milland, there is a noteworthy performance from film noir regular Audrey Totter (Lady in the Lake, The Unsuspected, The Set-Up). Her performance as the hard-luck prostitute with a conscience is among her best. It's somewhat surprising that her character's introduction – drunk, stealing drinks in a bar, where she gets into a violent cat-fight with another woman – was allowed by the Production Code. Thomas Mitchell (It's a Wonderful Life, High Noon) is also memorable as Foster, a thoroughly bourgeois, unglamorous man who is outshadowed by Beal at every turn.

Thanks to all of these performances, Alias Nick Beal comes highly recommended. It's a shame that it isn't available on DVD, but you could track down a copy online. Fans of film noir, Ray Milland, and the Faust tale will definitely want to check it out. Here's hoping that a Blu-ray release will come along soon.

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