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 , THE SET-UP , TENSION ) 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.