The first time I read a synopsis of ALIAS NICK BEAL think I groaned a little. I like my noir down to earth, and this movie concerns a politician who gets involved with the devil. As in, the Prince of Darkness. Pass, I thought.
But...the movie is directed by the great John Farrow. It stars Ray Milland, Thomas Mitchell, Fred Clark and George Macready. And it has Audrey Totter in her prime. That’s reason enough to see any movie. So I saw it.
I had no idea this movie was going to be so good. Yes, it does indeed tell the story of a politician named Joseph Foster (Mitchell) who makes a deal with a mysterious stranger named Nick Beal (Milland). Beal guarantees Foster’s swift ascent up the rungs of power, much to the surprise and mounting horror of Foster’s wife (Geraldine Wall) and his best friend, the Reverend Garfield (Macready—cast, to put it mildly, against type). The only people who seem happy about Foster’s rise are the head of the state political machine (Fred Clark) and a prostitute named Donna Allen (Totter). Beal has set Donna up in high style and placed her near Foster to tempt him toward the abyss. (I guess because I’m not greedy the thought selling my soul to the devil in order to be governor doesn’t make much sense. But selling your soul for Audrey Totter…now that's a deal worth thinking about.)
If the plot sounds cheesy, it’s because the plot is cheesy. Yet ALIAS NICK BEAL is a fine example of how style can effect the rough materials of a film, transform them into something quite interesting. This material could have been taken and turned into something awful. As it is ALIAS NICK BEAL plays like a cross between IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and DOCTOR FAUSTUS. If Mephistopheles had answered George Bailey’s prayer, the result might have looked something like this movie.
The key component here is the great John Farrow. One of the masters of noir, Farrow was also a devout Catholic who wrote a book about the popes and was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre by Pious XI. This was a man who was serious about his religion, and ALIAS NICK BEAL for all its Hollywoodized elements, has a serious undercurrent. Joseph Foster isn’t a mere dupe. He’s an essentially good man with essentially good motives, but he has certain weaknesses. While still a district attorney, he’s willing to break the law a little in order to put a crook behind bars. He’s willing to make a deal with the corrupt political machine in his state in order to get elected, but once he gets to the statehouse he plans to be an honest governor. Even his relationship with Donna is more about emotional comfort and support than sex. Farrow foregrounds the flawed character of his poor antihero. Played by the always dependable Thomas Mitchell, Foster seems like a plausible human being.
The same is true of Donna, the prostitute-turned-lady played by Audrey Totter. The film contains an extraordinary scene in which Nick picks up Donna outside a bar. She tries to flirt with him, but he’s cold to her. She’s just a pawn—and you get the sense she’s used to playing the role of pawn for men. Donna, like Foster, isn’t a “bad” person, she’s just a woman with certain weaknesses. Later in the film, there’s a sequence in Donna’s swank new apartment in which Nick coaches her on how to seduce Foster, followed by Foster’s arrival and the actual seduction. This entire sequence—from Nick and Donna to Donna and Foster is an exquisite piece of work. Totter—one of the true goddesses of film noir—was rarely better than she is here. She’s sexy, sad, and touching. (Another reason you should see this film: Totter’s apartment is an amazing set, one of the best/weirdest you’ll ever see in a film noir. It looks like Salvador Dali was her decorator.)
Of course, the real trick here is how you handle Nick Beal himself. Here the film commits a couple of sins. There are a few too many scenes of Nick appearing from out of nowhere and then disappearing. There’s a faintly ominous musical cue. Yet even in these moments, Farrow doesn’t really lay it on too thick. The scene in which Foster and Reverend Garfield discuss the possibility that Beal is Lucifer is as good as such a scene could be:
Foster: We’re in the twentieth century, Tom. No one’s believe in such things since the Salem witch burnings. Besides...where’s the tail and the horns…and where’s the contract signed in blood and promising the delivery of one slightly used soul?
Rev. Garfield: Maybe the devil knows it’s the twentieth century too, Joseph.
Most importantly, Farrow has Ray Milland portray Nick as smooth, charming, and, most importantly, smart. He reminds me in some ways of CS Lewis’s Screwtape. Nick knows people, he knows what they want and why they want it. His business is human weakness, and business is good.
One might legitimately ask if a supernatural thriller like this qualifies as film noir. I would say yes to that question by citing three things: One, it’s directed by John Farrow and stars Ray Milland, Fred Clark, George Macready, and Audrey Totter (it’s even got a bit part for Percy Helton). That’s not enough by itself to qualify as noir, but it’s a hell of a good start. Two, the film is gorgeously shot by Lionel Linden and just about every scene fits the noir aesthetic. Three, the supernatural element of the film is just a more Christianized version of an essential noir tension: individual choice versus the vicissitudes of fate (another way to put that would be as existentialism versus nihilism). The ending of the film finds a way to reconfirm Farrow’s belief in forgiveness and redemption (as well as the studio’s belief in happy endings), but it doesn’t feel cheap. It gives Nick Beal some parting words that sound like catechism in the Church of Noir: “You saved yourself just in time, didn’t you? But there’ll be others who won’t. A lot of others. And I’ll tell you why. In everyone there’s a seed of destruction, a fatal weakness. You know that now, Foster. You’re lucky. Luckier than I was when I fell. But that was a long time ago.”