Monday, July 29, 2013

Alias Nick Beal (1949)

'Alias Nick Beal' from 1949 is the film noir version of 'Faust'. In this case, Mephistopheles, the Devil's servant, is Nick Beal (Ray Milland) and Faust is Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell). The movie was directed by John Farrow ('The Big Clock' also starring Ray Milland, 'Night Has A Thousand Eyes'), with a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer ('The Glass Key', 'The Big Clock') after a story by Mindret Lord. The music was done by the great Franz Waxman ('Sunset Blvd.', 'Sorry, Wrong Number') and cinematography was handled by Lionel Lindon ('The Blue Dahlia', 'Quicksand').

Joseph Foster is a successful and honest District Attorney who is working on a big and highly publicized case against a local mobster, Hanson. Unfortunately the main incriminating piece of evidence that he's about to lay claim to, Hanson's financial books, ends up burned to crisps. Without it he doesn't have a case. In desperation he cries out 'I'd give my soul to nail him!', at which point he receives a message that someone named Nick Beal can help him. Nick Beal miraculously knows where Foster can get the evidence he needs, a copy of the books, albeit in an illegal manner. But Foster goes for it, convicting Hanson is more important to him than a little case of theft. And from that moment on, he's firmly stuck in Beal's clutches, but Foster doesn't realize it yet. In fact, his career skyrockets, and he gets asked to run for governor after the successful trial. Beal begins to meddle with Foster's run for governor and closes a few deals that Foster would not have made himself including a deal with another criminal, Faulkner (Fred Clark), to buy votes. Foster doesn't like it at first, but the deals are beneficial to the election, so he accepts them. This does alienate Foster from his closest friends however, including Reverend Thomas Garfield (George Macready) who thinks he's seen Beal's face before. But as Foster finds out after he's become governor, when you sell your soul to the devil, you really do sell your soul, and the devil intends to collect.

There are various ways in which Beal manipulates Foster, some more obvious than others. Beal picks up a prostitute, Donna Allen (Audrey Totter), and puts her up in a modern-looking apartment, complete with impressionistic art painted on the walls. He gives her expensive clothes and jewelry encrusted with sapphires. Even the maid's name is Opal. He sets her up with a central position in Foster's campaign, instructs her how to behave around Foster, and before he knows it, he's fallen for her, and neglecting his marriage to Martha (Geraldine Wall). Another way is setting up Foster as the prime suspect for the murder of Hanson's bookkeeper, who burned the original books that Foster needed, and then making sure Foster is cleared, right after explaining to him how he has become the main suspect. Foster does realize he's being blackmailed by Beal at various points in the movie, but he's unable to do anything about it and unwilling because his career is still moving towards the sky, because of Beal. But the biggest manipulation happens when Beal has Foster sign a contract that he will give Beal a meaningless post in his governor's administration, with an innocent-sounding clause should he fail to do so. And of course Foster fails to do so, because lo and behold, he finally realizes all he's done and let happen around him to reach the position of governor, and so he resigns... What a fool.

Ray Milland is outstanding as the icy cold, sinister, calculating and suave Nick Beal who is seemingly one step ahead of everybody else. There's a running gag throughout the movie where Beal appears in a scene seemingly out of nowhere. In one scene Foster is pacing a room, stands still and when he moves again Beal is standing behind Foster. In others, he appears from behind a curtain or just happens to stand in a corner of a room, unnoticed by everybody else in the room and unseen until the camera shifts position slightly. Or Foster entering an empty room with Beal rising out of a lazy chair all of a sudden. It adds to the creepiness surrounding Nick Beal. In that particular scene Foster is looking for ice for some drinks he's fixing and Beal casually mentions 'There isn't any ice my friend', hinting at the place he intends to take Foster to.

Audrey Totter shines here as well with her great facial expressions. Totter was an actress with a unique look, she had a very expressive face, her eyes especially speak volumes, and she makes good use of it here. At one point in her/Beal's apartment Beal instructs Donna on how she should sway a conversation she's about to have with Foster in a certain direction. Beal gives her a word-by-word play of the upcoming conversation, and Donna pays attention, half-heartedly. But during the actual conversation she realizes Foster is saying verbatim what Beal said he would, and her face and eyes are full of amazement but also fear for Beal, who's eavesdropping from the next room. Another fine example is when she's sitting half-drunk at a bar and constantly asks the bartender what time it is, in what is a quite funny scene until Nick Beal makes his eery entrance. It is done beautifully, both visually and Totter's acting.

The rest of the cast are solid throughout, playing parts that they have seemingly played dozens of times before, Mitchell as the good and somewhat naive guy, Clark as the slimy criminal. Macready is cast against type, his noir roles were usually as a villain, but he does a good job as the reverend who eventually comes to believe that Beal is the devil.

Visually the movie's best parts are in and surrounding Beal's favorite hangout, which is a shoddy bar at a bay, which seems perpetually covered in a thick fog, making for some very noir shots. The way Beal first enters the movie, appearing through the fog while whistling a tune, sets the mood perfectly. In a similar fashion he appears before Donna after she's been kicked out of the bar, sudden and out of the fog. The ending sequence of the movie also happens there, in the thick fog, as he's about to lead Foster away to his final destination, but not before the reverend and Foster's wife Martha catch up with them. It's a bit of a letdown to be honest (altho it is to be expected), with Beal of course leaving empty-handed. But it doesn't take away from an otherwise fun and good movie with great performances by Ray Milland and Audrey Totter. Don't pass up on this one!

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