I had the pleasure of seeing Alias Nick Beal at the Noir City LA festival this evening over at the Egyptian Theater. The film screened as the second half of a double bill honoring actress Audrey Totter, who passed away this past December at age 95. I convinced my sister, who is visiting from out of town, to come, and met up with my friends Jen and Laura from Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings.
Totter, who played many a memorable femme fatale, was wonderful in the first film, Tension, which also starred Richard Basehart and a young Cyd Charisse. That film was a lot more of a “traditional” noir, a murder story with Totter’s bad woman at the center. But I want to speak a little more about Alias Nick Beal, which is a film I’d seen before, but felt fortunate to see on a pristine 35mm print on the big screen.
Alias Nick Beal follows District Attorney Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell), a straight-down-the-line operator. Foster has built up a great reputation for himself in his law career, and affiliates himself with the local boys clubs run by Reverand Thomas Garfield (George Macready) that help keep troubled youth off the streets. The thorn in Foster’s side is a man named Hansen, who runs some sort of organized crime scheme in town and has managed to continue to evade the law. Foster knows if he can get to Hansen’s accounting books he’d be able to convict him, even going as far to say he’d “sell his soul” for the opportunity.
Almost immediately, Foster is told to meet a Nick Beal (Ray Milland) at the China Coast Cafe near the docks. Beal is able to provide the accounting books to Foster, even though they were thought to be burned by Hansen’s bookkeeper. Although taken without a proper search warrant, Foster grabs the opportunity to take Hansen down.
With Hansen convicted, Foster is nominated for the governors’ race by the reverend and other members of the independent party. Beal appears again with an offer to fund Foster’s campaign, a move which alienates Foster’s wife, who acts as the voice of Foster’s integrity. But Foster accepts Beal’s direction in his campaign with the ideal that sacrificing on his principles now will allow him a chance to make his grand reforms later as governor.
Beal also recruits a washed-up actress named Donna Allen (Audrey Totter) to work for Foster’s campaign. He gifts her a lavish apartment, fancy clothes and a rich lifestyle in exchange for seducing Foster. As the campaign wears on, Foster sacrifices his integrity, aligning himself with the crooked Frankie Faulkner on Beal’s recommendation in order to win votes, and allowing himself to fall for Allen. As both Foster and Allen start to realize that Beal is controlling both of them, they try to break free. The film ends with a showdown between the cunning Nick Beal and Foster, who now understands that perhaps deals with the Devil are not just medieval lore.
A modern variation on the Faust tale, Alias Nick Beal was directed by John Farrow at Paramount. It was one of several films in which Farrow would direct Ray Milland, and features some really wonderful photography marked by the trademark chiaroscuro lighting of noir, and the eerie foggy docks on which Beal and Foster meet to discuss their dealings.
The cast is really great and on top of their game. Michell is his usual dependable self as the conflicted Foster, someone who realizes too late that he’s backed himself into quite the hole. Totter isn’t really a femme fatale in the sense that she was in Tension as she’s a woman who has had bad breaks, but has a soft side. As in Tension, she could easily command any room with her presence and sultry looks, but her character realizes what Nick Beal is up to, and tries to warn Foster instead of using him to her advantage.
Milland is top-billed here, and there’s no question why. This is one of the post-Lost Weekend films that he was given a role with some substance, and he makes the most of it. His Nick Beal appears and disappears on a whim, and really isn’t a man of many words. Instead, Milland gives him power through his eyes and facial expressions: a sly half smile, or a look that could skewer someone against the wall from across the room. Middle-aged here but still handsome, Milland uses his charm and presence as a leading man to create a mysterious, cold and cunning character. Though often just standing in the background as the characters he puppets do his bidding, it’s hard to take your eyes off him as his presence demands attention.
Ray Milland was mostly known for his light romantic comedy roles before getting the lead in The Lost Weekend. It’s such a delight to see him play bad, which he was allowed to do several times later on in his career. I think he’s an actor you can really see an evolution from his early work to his later. I very much enjoy his earlier roles, but I somewhat doubt at that point in his career he would’ve pulled off the against-type roles he was given later on. Although many times in early romantic comedy films he was kind of a cad, there’s something about his physicality as he moved into his 40s that lent itself to there being this element of danger under the surface of that polished facade. There’s a real subtlety and nuance to his work in The Lost Weekend and beyond that really isn’t fully realized in his work until then. Whatever the reason, Milland is able to pull off being the villain just as convincingly as any of his other roles. It’s a devilishly good turn.
Unfortunately Alias Nick Beal isn’t available on home video, so seeing it on the film print is pretty much the only way of getting a hold of it. There are versions floating around, which I think must be off of collector’s prints, but if you have the chance to see the film off the 35mm print, definitely take the opportunity. It, like another rare film, So Evil My Love, is a chance to see Milland play against type, and it’s a treat definitely worth the price of admission.