Friday, November 17, 2017

T-MEN (1947)

Eagle-Lion Films, 92m 17s


On a budget of $434 thousand, T-MEN raked in $2 million at the box office to become the most commercially successful release from Eagle-Lion Films, one of the finest of Hollywood's "Poverty Row" studios. The B film also was received well critically, and was the subject of a feature by LIFE. With the persistent narration that was typical of the noir docudrama approach, T-MEN covers the Shanghai Paper Case, a fictitious investigation based on an amalgam of actual cases.

The story involves a complex counterfeiting web pursued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, a federal arm created in 1789, as confirmed in an introductory segment built around Elmer Lincoln Irey. As Chief of the Treasury Department's Internal Revenue Service Enforcement Branch, Irey led the charge against Al Capone's Chicago Outfit. According to Irey, whose presence is intended to lend authenticity to the action about to unfold, various divisions of the U.S. Department of the Treasury have gathered the evidence necessary to convict roughly 2/3 of the prison population. With the government department's credibility firmly established, the men assigned to the counterfeiting case are Dennis O'Brien (Dennis O'Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder). The investigation has been frustrating, and has hit numerous dead ends along the way. Working under the aliases of Vannie Harrigan (O'Brien) and Tony Galvani (Genaro), the tandem heads to Detroit with plans of being recruited by known racketeer Vantucci (Anton Kosta), who may be connected with the counterfeiting operation.



Like most police procedurals, T-MEN depicts an unrelenting law enforcement agency that is organized, well-staffed and incredibly efficient. As written by John C. Higgins, based on the original story by Virginia Kellogg, leadership is determined, agents are resourceful and crime laboratory technicians unearth a vast assortment of information from seemingly trivial clues. The agent's job is one of selfless duty and family sacrifice for a modest salary. Dedicated undercover agents spend countless hours on tedious research and dutiful follow-up on any and all leads ("Every angle, however slight, must be carefully checked."). Both O'Brien and Genaro endure plenty of stress and rough abuse in the line of duty. An agent even is willing to offer his life if necessary in the interest of dismantling a sophisticated organized crime network. The obvious takeaway is that even the slickest of criminals stands no chance versus the meticulous prep work and tenacious determination of the federal law enforcement system.





Director of photography John Alton, a name film noir fans should recognize, expertly utilizes high-contrast lighting to accent the danger of dark alleys, crummy apartments and assorted locales where illegal activities take place. He honors the textbook noir visual style of the 1940s in the early going, when an informant named Shorty (Curt Conway) is gunned down before he can provide any information. Other telltale noir settings well captured by Alton include the Club Trinidad, precipitous staircases and those hazy steam rooms, especially when The Schemer (Wallace Ford) dies a painful death while doing something he loved, a noir death if ever there were one. Director Anthony Mann proves his acumen for staging tough-guy sequences, though he forgets where to place his camera when O'Brien obviously pulls his punch at Moxie (Charles McGraw). This was the first official pairing of Mann and Alton, who would team up again for RAW DEAL (1948) and BORDER INCIDENT (1949), both outstanding examples of the noir form. They also worked together on the influential HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), though directorial credit was assigned to Alfred L. Werker. Narrator Reed Hadley lent his vocal talents to a considerable sample of noir entries, such as THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945), 13 RUE MADELEINE (1946), BOOMERANG! (1947), WALK A CROOKED MILE (1948) and HE WALKED BY NIGHT. And though neither has a large role, appearances by Jane Randolph (CAT PEOPLE [1942]) and Art Smith (IN A LONELY PLACE [1950]) always are appreciated.




The stunning Blu-ray version of T-MEN now available through boutique label ClassicFlix puts my old Roan Group Archival Entertainment DVD to shame. I did not notice a flaw of any sort in this restored 1080P single-layered Blu-ray edition, faithfully framed at the original theatrical scope of 1.37:1 and complimented by the uncompressed mono soundtrack. Supplemental material starts with a new audio commentary track from film noir historian Alan K. Rode, who notes that T-MEN made its Hollywood premier on Christmas Day(!) in 1947. Rode confirms that director Anthony Mann considered T-MEN his first film, despite his dozen prior directorial credits. T-MEN was the first film over which the director felt he maintained creative responsibility and control. Rode points out some of the various locations that serve as the backdrop, including Ocean Park Pier, Farmers Market (still thriving!) and Sheraton Town House. Rode takes advantage of the many opportunities the film provides to identify noir visual tropes, i.e. low camera angles, the arrangement of actors within the frame, and above all else the magnificent interplay between light and shadow. Each screening of T-MEN creates a deeper impression of just how little light is utilized to create many of the film's most iconic images. My favorite observation from Rode really captures the essence of this film, and the noir movement in general:  "With Alton and Mann in this movie, everyone emerges from the dark into the light."



The genre-defining technical achievements of the Alton/Mann combination are examined further in the featurette "Into the Darkness: Mann, Alton and T-MEN" (10m 38s). Testimonials from Rode, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER film critic Todd McCarthy, film historian Julie Kirgo, cinematographer Richard Crudo and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner describe how Alton and Mann set the noir tone with minimalist setups. Their approach was not conventional at the time T-MEN was in production. Alton preferred simple light bulbs to the large overhead light fixtures that illuminated most studio soundstages. Mann was similar-minded when it came to camera positioning; his camera seldom moved other than for the occasional tracking shot of a character.



In the interview segment "A Director's Daughter: Nina Mann Remembers" (9m 18s), Mann discusses her father's fascinating filmmaking career in the context of how recurring themes and motifs reflect his background. For her, to watch his films is to explore his life. She claims her father merely thought of himself as a journeyman, not the great artist he is considered today.

Contained within the Blu-ray case is a well-illustrated 24-page booklet with an essay by Max Alvarez, author of THE CRIME FILMS OF ANTHONY MANN (2013). Without question, this ClassicFlix edition of T-MEN is likely to remain the definitive version of the film for a long time.



Monday, October 16, 2017

SCANDAL SHEET (1952)

Columbia Pictures, 82m


The influence of the past on the present is one of the most definitive film noir themes. That consistent connection probably is best explained by an element of fate. Although the forces of darkness that rule the noir world sometimes appear random, other times the genre’s protagonists encounter self-imposed difficulties. Indeed some of my favorite film noirs involve a protagonist who falls into a trap of his own making. One of the finest examples of that template is director Phil Karlson's terrific SCANDAL SHEET (1952), based upon the novel THE DARK PAGE by Samuel Fuller. One of many fine noirs produced by Edward Small, this adaptation moves at a brisk pace and, unfortunately, still accurately reflects our nation's appetite for sordid news reporting.

What plays out in the narrative has its roots in an event that transpired two decades ago in Connecticut, when Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) deserted his unstable wife Charlotte (Rosemary DeCamp), whose wrists show irrefutable evidence of a suicide attempt. Having moved on from the relationship better than she has, these days Chapman is the unapologetic executive editor of the New York Express, a once respected news publication he converted into a far more financially viable tabloid operation. The more sensational the news, the higher the circulation jumps. The paper's brand of journalism has been altered so unrecognizably that onetime Pulitzer Prize winner Charlie Barnes (Henry O'Neill) has been reduced to a pathetic drunkard, abandoned to the company of the city's wastrels.

Chapman's place in society is threatened when Charlotte returns to the Lonely Hearts Club Ball that Chapman himself engineered in the interest of generating another lowest-common-denominator news feature. In a tense scene, Chapman quite ironically creates another such story when he accidentally kills Ball attendee Charlotte, which predictably leads to an avalanche of trouble for the master of yellow journalism. One crime almost always begets more crime in the film noir, as the embattled protagonist cannot stop digging when he finds himself in a deep hole.


But as one man falls in SCANDAL SHEET, another man must rise. Reporter Steve McCleary (John Derek) is first glimpsed at the film's exposition scene at a squalid apartment complex, where he impersonates a cop to get all the dirt from a hatchet murder eyewitness. Later he bribes the chief examiner (Cliff Clark) with baseball tickets. Though he no doubt learned such tactics from Chapman, to prove his worth as an investigative reporter, McCleary (unknowingly) must endeavor to bring down Chapman. This is the greatest of the film's many ironies, that to succeed we must destroy someone we admire. The tabloid editor slowly being condemned by his own protégé suggests an absurd justice rules noir territory, especially considering the newspaper readership boost that results from Chapman's own criminal activity.

Broderick Crawford was one of those few actors uniquely suited to the noir form. His infamously hard drinking made him difficult to work with, yet I never have questioned his performances. Here his forehead really beads up with sweat as the thumbscrews gradually tighten. Similar to Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) in WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), Chapman must observe the dogged investigation of the crime he committed. On another thematic level, Chapman is a man torn between two identities, an unenviable challenge shared by other major noir characters that came before him. Multiple identities complicated the lives of the protagonists in numerous film noirs prior to SCANDAL SHEET, including THE DARK MIRROR (1946), NORA PRENTISS (1947), HOLLOW TRIUMPH (1948) and THE CROOKED WAY (1949). Fittingly, Chapman's dismissive treatment of the fallen journalist Barnes accelerates the editor's downfall. Less compelling than Crawford's presence is the performance by John Derek, who offers a rather one-dimensional turn. Donna Reed casts a better impression in her role as the embodiment of journalistic integrity. The cinematography for SCANDAL SHEET was handled by Burnett Guffey, who served as director of photography for that same year's unforgettable film noir THE SNIPER (1952).


SCANDAL SHEET was predated by other essential film noirs that portrayed journalism in a negative light, i.e. THE BIG CLOCK (1948), FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949), THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950) and, most notably, ACE IN THE HOLE (1951). All are well worth your time. Be prepared when SCANDAL SHEET airs next on Turner Classic Movies, or hand over the cash for the pricey Sony DVD box set The Samuel Fuller Film Collection.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948)

RKO Radio Pictures, 95m 43s


The feature film debut from revered director Nicholas Ray, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is roughly equal parts film noir, road movie and tragic romance. Its influence on GUN CRAZY (1950), PIERROT LE FOU (1965), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), BADLANDS (1973) and many other movies cannot be underestimated. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT had been known alternately as THIEVES LIKE US, YOUR RED WAGON and THE TWISTED ROAD before its eventual release in the US. In terms of self-awareness of the dark genre it reflects, the final title treatment stands as one of the most appropriately entitled examples of genre filmmaking.

After a most unusual prologue for what ultimately is a downbeat story, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT commences properly with a prison break in its later stages. The newly free men include lifers Elmo "One-Eye" Mobley, AKA Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva), the square-jawed Henry "T-Dub" Mansfield (Jay C. Flippen) and 23-year-old pretty boy Arthur "Bowie" Bowers (Farley Granger). The three wind up staying with Chickamaw's alcoholic brother (Will Wright), where Bowie begins to get acquainted with Chickamaw's plain but undeniably attractive niece Catherine "Keechie" Mobley (Cathy O'Donnell). Wrongly imprisoned, Bowie explains to Keechie he served seven years before his escape, and his history prior to incarceration would have dismantled any young man's future. His pop was killed over a pool game, and his mother ran off with the guy who offed her husband! Keechie can empathize to some extent, since her mother did not hang around either.

After the three escapees pull off a successful bank job, Bowie's hard luck continues when his gun is discovered at a crime scene featuring his prints. That incident sets him and Keechie on the run in the forlorn hope they can find happiness. Naturally the young couple would prefer to leave Chickamaw and T-Dub in their dust, but the past has a nasty habit of hunting down hapless film noir protagonists. As the story progresses, Bowie remains indebted to the men who engineered his escape from the big house. Though Bowie describes T-Dub as "steady" in the early moments of the film, later T-Dub none too gently reminds "The Kid" who sprung him from prison. Repeated compositions of Bowie symbolically imprison him in cage-like surroundings. He may have fled the joint, but the recurring images that oppress him suggest he is not really free, and perhaps never will be.





Such film noir sensibilities are the essence of THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, which advances the genre by way of creative cinematography, unforgiving social themes and imperfect characters whose poor decisions follow them. The great Robert Mitchum was interested in the role of Chickamaw, but was considered a leading man by the time THEY LIVE BY NIGHT was in pre-production. That was probably just as well, since Howard Da Silva makes a lasting impression as the one-eyed brute Chickamaw, whose blindness in one eye never is explained. Is his bad eye the result of WWII combat, or perhaps a battle scar from a previous crime? After he shoots a pesky cop, it might be assumed the latter. One would think he would sport glasses in an effort to conceal his most identifiable trait, but perhaps such matters of practicality would be pointless in the noir world, where a character's true self almost always finds expression. Interestingly, Chickamaw is shot dead (off camera) when he attempts to go it alone on a liquor store holdup. Thus the fatal flaw of criminals is shown to be their inability to stick together. The criminal code seems incredibly self-centered as the fugitives are ratted on by some of those closest to them. First Chickamaw's older brother sings like a canary after his daughter runs off with Bowie, later Mattie (Helen Craig) sells out to get her husband out of prison.

At the core of THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is the plight of poor, unworldly southerners like Bowie, a young man who has no idea why anyone could become fascinated with horseback riding or the peculiar game of golf. Bowie and Keechie are married by bargain-basement wedding master Hawkins (Ian Wolfe) for $20, with a $5 surcharge for a wedding ring. The cheapness of the proceedings is telling since money consistently brings the newlyweds nothing in the way of happiness. The "trigger-happy hillbilly" Bowie learns he is not welcome at fancy clubs, cannot relocate to Mexico, and leaves money with the woman who betrays him. Early in the film, Bowie speaks of no wild ambitions; he just wants his own service station, a familiar dream of the film noir protagonist (i.e. OUT OF THE PAST [1947], 99 RIVER STREET [1953]). But there is nothing like that in the cards for Bowie, who has to endure one of the great film noir lines from Hawkins, who tells him, “…I won’t sell you hope when there ain’t any.”





Based on the novel THIEVES LIKE US (1937) by Edward Anderson and written for the screen by Charles Schnee, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT contains impressive location footage that adds a strong sense of the real world to the narrative. But what elevates this film more than anything from lesser crime stories is the positively stunning black and white cinematography. It is difficult to imagine the viewing experience being nearly the same had the film been shot in color. Obviously, that quality is one of the hallmarks of film noir. Cinematographer George E. Diskant handled the camera for an incredible array of noir productions, including DESPERATE (1947), PORT OF NEW YORK (1949), BEWARE, MY LOVELY (1952), THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952). Diskant was teamed with Ray again for A WOMAN'S SECRET (1949), THE RACKET (Ray uncredited, 1951) and ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951), the last of which probably is the best of their collaborations. Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger would be matched again in director Anthony Mann's downward-spiral film noir SIDE STREET (1950). Director Robert Altman would preserve the Anderson novel's title for his 1974 adaptation THIEVES LIKE US.





The Criterion Collection's 2K digital restoration of THEY LIVE BY NIGHT presents the film in optimal condition, framed at the original theatrical scope of 1.37:1 and complete with uncompressed monaural soundtrack for the Blu-ray edition. The audio commentary option was ported from the Warner Brothers DVD first released in 2007 as part of FILM NOIR CLASSIC COLLECTION, VOL. 4. The track teams Farley Granger with the ever reliable film noir expert Eddie Muller. RKO boss Howard Hughes did not much care for THEY LIVE BY NIGHT according to Granger. The film sat on the shelf at RKO for two years before a successful screening in London prompted an American theatrical run. Both Granger and Muller have a lot of nice things to say about first-time director Nicholas Ray, whose approach to filmmaking challenged conventions of the day. Ray reached for a sense of authenticity beyond his contemporaries. Despite the obvious presence of various processed shots, at least one dramatic transition from location to soundstage, and Production Code concessions, with THEY LIVE BY NIGHT Ray established himself as a persistently convincing filmmaker capable of informing all four corners of the frame. He also began to build his reputation as a director perfectly willing to drive a film in one direction before switching gears and winding up somewhere completely different than the opening act implied. His film noir classics IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) and ON DANGEROUS GROUND both follow that pattern. Ray’s groundbreaking cinema inspired a new generation of French filmmakers who ignited the New Wave that emboldened cinema of the late 1950s and 1960s. Muller also considers THEY LIVE BY NIGHT the first true road movie, and he credits RKO Production Chief Dore Schary for the vast assortment of noir films that studio would produce. Schary understood film noir material suited RKO very well since interesting stories could be filmed on tight budgets. RKO did not have the type of resources that the major studios possessed.



Another reappearance from the Warner DVD is the succinct featurette "THEY LIVE BY NIGHT:  The Twisted Road" (6m 10s) with film critics Molly Haskell and Glenn Erickson, filmmakers Christopher Coppola and Oliver Stone and noted film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. The remaining supplemental material is new to this Criterion edition. The most significant piece is "Outside of Time:  Imogen Sara Smith on THEY LIVE BY NIGHT" (20m 53s). Smith sees THEY LIVE BY NIGHT as one of the key films of the late 1940s that transferred film noir from the standard urban milieu into country settings and seemingly open highways. An excellent point raised by Smith is the road film under review subverts the notion of the American highway as a metaphor for freedom. These roads lead to nowhere, and the couple's automobile further alienates them from society, as it in effect cuts them off from other people. Smith also references director Fritz Lang's YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937) as an important precursor to THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. Both films borrowed from the exploits of Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow, and Ray seems to draw from the social context of the Lang film that was released a decade earlier than Ray's production. Where the two films most differ resides within the protagonists. Bowie and Keechie are more victims of circumstance than hardened criminals (as the opening prologue states, the two “…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…”). They are less bound by crime than their respective outsider statuses. That feeling of otherness, of course, is one of the noir film's most dominant tropes. Smith notes Ray himself did not fit particularly well into society's institutions, yet he always made the most of the opportunities before him. Though he enjoyed the most creative freedom while making THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, he exercised less control over the more famous films he would direct subsequently, such as IN A LONELY PLACE, JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955).

Also unique to this Criterion release is an edited excerpt (6m 36s) from a radio interview with producer John Houseman, conducted by Gideon Bachmann for his FILM FORUM radio program. Originally broadcast in 1956, Houseman very eloquently describes the role of producer, which from his perspective chiefly involves the creation of an environment in which all contributors can thrive. When it comes to mainstream film production, he says content creators must come to terms with the fact that audiences demand escapist entertainment, though that does not mean theatrical product should not reach for more complexity in an effort to stimulate an audience's intellect.

The packaging includes a fine booklet essay by film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz.

Monday, August 28, 2017

KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952)

United Artists, 99m
Format: 35mm

NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2017
Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL
Friday, August 25th – Thursday, August 31st, 2017


This past Saturday afternoon, NOIR CITY: CHICAGO 2017 host Eddie Muller explained this year's festival selections share a heist theme. Prior to film noir treatments, typical heist films focused on the exploits of Robin Hood-like aristocrats according to Muller. But when the Production Code began to loosen up in the 1950s, the heist storyline began to infiltrate bleak noir narratives like the durable MGM title THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950). The commercial success of that film set the stage for ensuing noir caper films such as KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, one of the more influential films of its kind. The memorable storyline authored by George Bruce and Harry Essex was based on a concept by Harold Greene and Rowland Brown. It was Brown who came up with the novel idea that the criminals assembled for the caper would not know each other.


The film opens with an armored car robbery in the planning stages. To make off with $1.2 million, Tim Foster (Preston Foster) requires three accomplices whose identities are to be concealed from each other via masks. Pete Harris (Jack Elam) is a small time gambler with little choice but to join forces with Foster. The same holds true with cop killer Boyd Kane (Neville Brand) and three-time loser Tony Romano (Lee Van Cleef). The heist is executed as planned, but do not tell that to Western Florists truck driver Joe Rolfe (John Payne), who is set up by Foster to get grilled by police for the bank job.


Rolfe is an ex-con, but also a veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. In a theme associated with a wide range of noir titles, Rolfe is a WWII vet faced with extreme difficulty in a civilian world. Caught in the wrong place at the worst possible time—another common problem for the noir protagonist—Rolfe even loses his job over the heist investigation. Then sensational news headlines link the innocent Rolfe with the crime. Stuck with no job prospects and no help from the police, Rolfe sets out as the rugged individualist in search of the men who trashed his life.

Though KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL does not rely on darkness and shadows like many of its atmospheric noir cousins of the 1940s, when Rolfe assumes the identity of one of the bank robbers, the all around sense of paranoia and dread intensifies throughout the remainder of the film. The men recruited by Foster are invited to the (fictitious) Mexican resort town of Barados, where the robbery take allegedly will be distributed. But Foster has a complicated past of his own, and motivations unknown to the men he hired. Especially as portrayed by Preston Foster, the embittered mentor of the heist is among the more sympathetic of noir criminals, complete with a pleasant daughter (Coleen Gray) who is enrolled in law school.


A rough and tough little film noir, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL is brimming with slapping, punching and shooting along its eventful course. Director Phil Karlson is remembered fondly for this and other hard-hitting noir exercises that would follow, two of which featured Payne:  99 RIVER STREET (1953) and HELL'S ISLAND (1955). Karlson also directed 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955), THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955) and THE BROTHERS RICO (1957), all essential viewing for the film noir enthusiast. Producer Edward Small has a similar stable of noir material to his credit, including 99 RIVER STREET. He also produced RAW DEAL (1948), WALK A CROOKED MILE (1948), DOWN THREE DARK STREETS (1954) and the outstanding NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL (1955), one of my favorite noir films to hail from the 1950s. 

Traces of KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952) can be found in three of the undeniable neonoir treasures of the 1990s:  RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997).

Saturday, August 12, 2017

ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949)

Paramount Pictures, 93m


Last week ALIAS NICK BEAL premiered on Turner Classic Movies. I was unable to catch the live presentation, but thankfully TCM made it available on demand for the next seven days. To be honest, I never even had heard of this title, but after a helpful Facebook alert from film noir historian Eddie Muller I knew it was likely an important work, and so it is. A noir picture with an unusual dose of the fantastic, ALIAS NICK BEAL would make for a good double feature with THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941). The Paramount production also recalls producer Val Lewton's noir horror cult classics, especially CAT PEOPLE (1942), I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943) and THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943). After the film’s opening credit sequence brings to mind classic Universal horror, the look, tone and structure of ALIAS NICK BEAL are cemented firmly within accepted noir boundaries.

The storyline condenses an eight-month period of time. 48-year-old District Attorney Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell) would make a fine governor according to underworld figure Frankie Faulkner (Fred Clark), but Foster wants nothing to do with the sort of help offered by the unabashedly crooked Faulkner. Well known for his work with the local Boys' Club, Foster is an honorable man. Suddenly he is plunged into noir waters when he gets an anonymous tip from a man who claims he can help the DA bring down a notorious racketeer named Hanson, who is "...an octopus sucking the blood of every little business in the city," according to Foster.

The oddly helpful agent is Nick Beal (Ray Milland), who emerges near the China Coast Cafe, a dockside dive with oblique angles that appear to have escaped from the set of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920). An uncanny presence, Beal likes the thought that Foster would give his soul to rid the streets of Hanson and his protection schemes. Thanks to Beal's assistance, Foster finally gets Hanson convicted, but the evidence that convicts Hanson is obtained illegally. Thus we have our "break," as Eddie Muller would say (faced with a morality choice, a film noir character makes the wrong decision, and an ever-worsening chain of events ensues).


At the heart of the narrative lies a timeless tale that is as disconcerting today as ever. Based on the successful prosecution of Hanson, Foster is able to build a case for governor, but he becomes increasingly entangled with Beal, an individual of far less character than Foster. Be that as it may, Beal offers an apparent means to an end. With the governorship, Foster could push through his many admirable ideas, even if he must "...throw a few scraps to Faulkner..." thanks to Beal’s involvement. Unfortunately, men like Faulkner and Beal are not satisfied with scraps forever.

Due primarily to their own ambitions, basically good men like Foster are vulnerable to people like Beal, and it is easy to understand why. Considering the present-day condition of federal and many state balance sheets in the real world, the alarming separation of wealth, and the net worth of the average politician, these days it appears the influence of men like Beal is considerably more prevalent than that of men like Foster. Though the conscientious may find the strength to resist making dark alliances, so many others will succumb to their own self-interests rather than the greater good. Too often, influential politicians answer to powerful figures who exhibit significant control from behind the curtain.

Beal does not limit his targets to ambitious persons like Foster. With remarkable self-assurance, he picks up the trollop Donna Allen (Audrey Totter) after she is booted from the waterfront bar Beal frequents. Allen proves women who have hit rock bottom are highly susceptible to the machinations of contemptible characters like Beal, who elevates her living standard in exchange for careful manipulation of Foster. With her heavy eyelids and thick lips, Audrey Totter (THE UNSUSPECTED [1947], THE SET-UP [1949], TENSION [1949]) could not help but convey the sultry impression of a promiscuous femme fatale. She is spot-on in this controlled performance, which sometimes calls for her to act while acting. Behind Allen's alluring look is a woman who has endured a lot more than she probably deserved. For victims of predators like Beal, the lesson learned is identical:  when one takes an exit down a dark road, there may not be a clear way back.


Though remembered more for his work on comedies, director of photography Lionel Lindon understood the film noir visual approach well given the persistent chiaroscuro lighting and low camera angles that haunt ALIAS NICK BEAL. The film noir look is always evident around the bayside dock where the neon sign for the local drinking establishment is about the only thing that cuts through the thick fog. Lindon also served as cinematographer on THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946) and QUICKSAND (1950), both favorite noirs of mine. Other noir themes and motifs include the not unusual presence of a crippled man, represented here by Reverend Thomas Garfield (George Macready), whose walk with a cane contrasts mightily with the stealth embodied by Beal. That opposition really emphasizes the threat of Beal, who appears and disappears as it suits him. The China Coast Cafe reminds the viewer of an American distrust of the Orient that was heightened during and after World War II, as perhaps best exemplified in THE BIG SLEEP (1946) and THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947), both quintessential film noirs.

ALIAS NICK BEAL director John Farrow already had worked with Ray Milland in the Western CALIFORNIA (1947), as well as THE BIG CLOCK (1948), a suspenseful noir thriller. The two would be matched again in COPPER CANYON (1950), another Western. Farrow also helmed the film noir NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948), which starred noir veteran Edward G. Robinson, and WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950), a rather textbook noir in terms of narrative, style and starpower. Ray Milland is superb here as the creepy Beal, a memorable tough talker with plenty of good lines provided by Jonathan Latimer's screenplay (based on an original story by Mindret Lord). Beal delivers a terrific little speech about a world composed of gray areas; certainly appropriate subject matter for the film noir.

Be sure to have your DVR locked and loaded the next time ALIAS NICK BEAL airs on TCM. This unique film noir currently is unavailable on home video in the US.