Posted by Moira Finnie on February 25, 2009
Since today is Ash Wednesday it dawned on me that few films might be more ripe for some examination today than Alias Nick Beal (1949), an unjustly obscure retelling of the Faust legend from the gifted, if uneven John Farrow. Coming at the end of the war torn forties, a decade when movies often toyed with stories about the relationship between the world, the flesh and the devil, this rarely seen movie fits uneasily among those films. TCM occasionally trots out some of the best on this slippery topic. There’s the brilliant silent Haxan (1922), the engaging The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), the suavely sinister air of Angel on My Shoulder (1946), the rank scent of corruption in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and the dazzling Mephisto (1982) turning up on the schedule from time to time as cautionary tales that entertain as well. No such cherished fate has befallen this mixture of noir and horror, which has never been released on dvd nor has it been broadcast very often in the last quarter century, though fortunately, this year’s Noir City 7 is presenting a freshly prepared 35mm print from Universal for those lucky enough to attend their screenings around the country .
Alias Nick Beal, which superficially concerns the political machinations in one benighted fictional state, comes to us from another time, and another way of looking at the world. Moviegoers in 1949 would have been keenly aware of some of the historical echoes in the script after living through the facist period, when more than a few believers wondered if an Anti-Christ was present in the world. They would also have been quite familiar with the political context of this story, watching an ambitious, slightly smug but well-meaning District Attorney run for high office. That spectacle was one they had witnessed a year before this film was made, as former NYC prosecutor Thomas Dewey had led a highly publicized fight against organized crime which had led him to the governor’s office in the Empire State. Dewey‘s rise led to a run for the presidency that had nearly toppled Harry Truman from office. Even President Truman had risen to power in Washington in the Senate and later as Vice President to Roosevelt thanks in large measure to the support of Missouri’s own master of the machine politicians, Thomas Joseph Pendergast, “an aristocrat among the nation’s politically corrupt elite”, who ran the most powerful political machine in that state for decades. Nor could the filmmakers have been unaware of the HUAC hearings of the year before this production, when the Hollywood Ten were vilified by many for, among other things, following their own consciences.
Given this real world background, the film opens with one Frankie Faulkner, (played insolently by an amusingly self-satisfied Fred Clark) offering the hero of this morality tale a governorship on a platter, providing that he’ll play ball with the crooked interests represented by Clark. On paper, the story seems like a Dashiell Hammett tale of political corruption. Yet, Alias Nick Beal unravels the relationship between our own devils and our annoyingly immortal souls by focusing on the fall and rise of a man who is sure that he wants to do good. As a matter of fact, he’s probably a little too sure. Our “hero” is Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell, a soft spoken powerhouse of an actor, the winner of an Academy, Emmy, and Tony award, who could make any role seem as real as a worn shoe). Playing a crusading District Attorney trying to rout a crooked kingpin named Hanson, Mitchell brings with him our identification of the actor as a good guy from a dozen classic movies–but here he makes us question his usual role as a figure generally “on the side of the angels.”
In another nifty casting touch, we learn that in his spare time D.A. Foster also tends to the business of a boy’s club overseen by none other than Reverend George Macready. Yes, that George Macready (seen at left), the vividly remembered malefactor in Gilda, I Am Julia Ross, and Paths of Glory is a figure of light in this one, in a wickedly apt reversal of typecasting. In an added twist, he is instrumental in identifying the sinister origins of the threat posed by a wolf among the sheep in his flock.
While spouting off about his zeal for the prosecution of Hanson, an unseen character who is described as “an octopus, with his tentacles in the pockets of all the little people”, Thomas Mitchell happens to comment out loud that he’d “give his soul to nail Hanson”. Who should appear in a trice? Not Beelzebub, but a small, blonde boy in a striped shirt with a message from someone named Beal, instructing Foster to meet him at the China Coast Cafe on the waterfront–if he really wants to nail Hanson. This leads us to one of the best scenes of the film, as we are introduced to the gimlet-eyed Ray Milland in a scene that might be an instructional video for identifying film noir atmosphere with just a dash of the supernatural, thanks in no small measure to the skills of cinematographer Lionel Lindon and the art direction of Franz Bachelin under the sure guidance of the masterful Paramount fixture Hans Dreier:
After that dubious alliance is formed within the foggy atmosphere that shrouds this dark film, Mitchell is soon using some illegally obtained account books to nail the mobster and he’s telling his loyal but disapproving wife (Geraldine Wall) that he’s tired of the psalm-singing, sanctimony and cant that surrounds him. While Mitchell struggles weakly against the money and opportunity held out by Beal, he also starts to believe that he’d like to run for governor. He begins to believe that he can do the most good once he’s in office, no matter what has to be done to obtain that position.
Beal’s guiding hand over Hanson’s fate is given an extra nudge or three from the surefooted presence of Audrey Totter, who plays a prostitute who is circling the drain when she encounters the icy Ray Milland character one fog-bound night. After she’s been thrown out of that busy cafe seen earlier, while lying on the ground, she looks up to see the cold-eyed Beal looking down on her. She asks if he could give a lady a hand up. “Sure” is his slowly hissed reply, though he never extends a hand as she struggles to her feet unsteadily. Explaining that he’s looking for a woman named Donna Allen, the bedraggled creature is taken aback, since that is her name. Asking what he wants, he replies in his sinister fashion. ”A woman. Quite beautiful, wearing sapphires and silk and sable,” he says quietly. “What are you, a cop?” is her understandably suspicious reply, though, at his invitation, she follows him to find out what he has in store for her.
Soon ensconced in a surreally plush apartment, Beal reveals that he knows all about her sorry history. Swathed in ermine with her name embroidered inside it, the blowsy blonde asks Beal if she has to commit murder to earn all this, to which he replies, “No, reform work. At a boys club.” Totter, who has described her experience on this film as among the best experiences of her career, described the film as one designed “to stimulate your imagination” without the need to spell out everything. However, her casting, as a woman of easy virtue who gradually understands who and what Nick Beal is, added greatly to this movie.
In one particularly exquisite and disturbing scene, she finds herself in her apartment with Thomas Mitchell and, since her mentor Milland had earlier described to her the emotional seduction of Mitchell word for word, giving her the appropriate responses in advance, the conversation between Mitchell and Totter takes on an eerieness on two levels as she fully realizes the uncanny–and possibly unholy–context of their meeting. Audrey Totter, who described the often difficult director John Farrow as “very good” thought her co-star Ray Milland as “ so sweet. He was great in that part. He was very impressive as the devil in modern times. He was so suave and smooth, but dangerous. He was a very good actor.” Totter, who is quite beguiling and touching in her degradation and her worldly exaltation apparently loved the movie, though she felt that the original title, “The Dark Circle” suited it better than the criminal implications evoked by Alias Nick Beal.
The film would not work without the felicitous casting of Welsh-born Ray Milland as Nick Beal. Milland spent the first ten years of his stellar career playing charming empty suits, honing his comedic gifts in some exceptionally good (and bad) movies, including a couple of good ones with Claudette Colbert, such as Arise, My Love (1940). With his appearance in the most elegant of ghost stories, The Uninvited (1944), and his startling Academy Award winning turn as a drunkard in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), along with such interesting work as Fritz Lang’s The Ministry of Fear (1944), his career rose to another plane. Nearing forty when reaching this level of success, he went on to have what is, in retrospect, one of the more interesting careers of any leading actor of his time, consistently adding shades of grey to his screen persona, moving on to villains. These later roles included work in disturbingly imaginative horror films such as Premature Burial (1962) and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), and tried directing on occasion, a skill that enabled him to incorporate one of the bleakest of apocalyptic visions in small budget movies such as Panic in the Year Zero! (1962). Very late in his career Milland appeared in a drive-in cult favorite, The Thing With Two Heads (1972), just after showing up (sans toupee) as Ryan O’Neal‘s disapproving patrician father in Love Story (1970), a box office blockbuster.
There was, I suspect, a Celtic twist to his acting ability, a willingness to explore something spare and strange inside him. This may have allowed him to bring to his roles a charm and a grittier menace just beneath the polished exterior that more formally trained actors of his generation sometimes lacked. That quality certainly helped him create this role as one of Satan’s representatives on earth. While having no problem injecting the part with a sense of powerful, not so latent evil, Milland leavens this darkness with his own humorous line readings, telling a suspicious Mitchell at their first meeting that he “is but a humble follower of [Mitchell's] work. Wayward boys set right, criminals successfully prosecuted, and…” after a dramatic hesitation, Milland says with only a small hint of disdain and a bit of surprise since this actual emotion seems to surprise Beal as well, “…I admire you, the incorruptible enemy of the legions of evil.” When holy man George Macready repeatedly tries to recall where he knows Beal from, Milland brushes him off by telling him he doesn’t have “much to do with reverends”. Still trying to place him, Macready asks if a portrait of him might have been painted at one time, to which Milland tosses off the remark “Yes, Rembrandt in 1665″.
While Ray Milland‘s suavely dressed Beal is quite amusing, the actor never allows us to completely feel empathy for his character, and one can’t help but sense a certain loneliness in the character, especially toward the end, when he senses that his grip on the earthly mortals might be faltering a bit. Beal is a compelling and mercurial, even a glamorous presence, enhanced by Farrow‘s having his entrances and exits occur unexpectedly. Beal’s edge of cruelty is especially evident in his treatment of the wavering Totter, whose subservience is brutally enforced, and the sinister character has a coldness that is reinforced by his repeated admonishment to those around him not to touch him. The actor also uses his hooded eyes to express his awareness and emotions of his surroundings. This is particularly effective in one scene when a silent Milland at first perceives that his victim (Thomas Mitchell) is slipping out of his grasp, followed by his happy realization that this may have tangential benefits, such as that codicil allowing Beal to employ Foster as he sees fit on the Isle of Almas Perdidas should he default on their arrangement. (Too bad Joseph Foster never had time to study Spanish, or he wouldn’t have found himself faced with such an eternal pickle).
Ray Milland wrote what I consider one of the least revelatory yet engaging autobiographies of any actor of his day, with his characteristic reticence on paper coupled with an acidic disdain for much of Hollywood’s nonsense. To compound his air of mystery, Milland appears to be one of the few actors who worked well with the director of Alias Nick Beal, John Farrow, a man the actor described as “difficult” but with whom he made four movies. A contradictory Australian-born writer who was a scholarly Catholic convert married to actress Maureen O’Sullivan from 1934 until his death in 1963, John Farrow fathered seven children, wrote celebrated books about St. Thomas More and Father Damien and became a successful, if profligate figure in the studio system, directing forty six movies.
He was also a notoriously aggressive skirt-chaser, a martinet on the set with a cruel streak and had a bad reputation acknowledged by everyone from his loyal, affectionate daughter Mia Farrow to Robert Mitchum, who described him as “a sadist” to Barbara Stanwyck, who demanded a public apology from him for his behavior after the completion of a movie they made together. The word contradictory doesn’t begin to describe Farrow, who, when he wasn’t wreaking havoc on himself and others, made some good movies, including Five Came Back (1939), The Big Clock (1948)*, and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948). While an uncredited writer himself for many of his screenplays, the latter two films were part of his collaboration with Jonathan Latimer, with whom Farrow worked on ten features. In each of Farrow‘s films, but particularly in those made with Milland and Latimer, the director brought something fresh and original to a familiar plot and characters, with unexpectedly bizarre twists, pointed, naturalistic dialogue, and a vivid atmosphere that sets them apart from much of Hollywood fare.
Alias Nick Beal, which Farrow felt was his best work, was, he thought, “good in every sense of the word. I said what I wanted to say, and the way I wanted to say it, without any studio interference.” As he explained in an interview with author John Reid in the early 1960s, to John Farrow, “[t]his was a film made with both inspiration and honesty.” Perhaps I am projecting onto Farrow the kind of self-awareness that the protean writer and Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh expressed when, acknowledging his own vile behavior, he wrote to a friend ”I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.” Even if one doesn’t share his faith, there seems to be a sense at the heart of this entertainment that the filmmaker wanted to note that his soul–and each of ours– had weight and that actions had consequences. This film seems to show more artistic ambition and a vision of life, a quality that Hazlitt described about John Milton, the poet who created ”Paradise Lost”, when he described that man’s own tormented imagination melting down, “as in a furnace, the most contradictory materials”. I couldn’t help but dimly remember these lines from Milton when I saw the penultimate climactic sequence of Alias Nick Beal as a sodden-spirited Thomas Mitchell mounts the steps of the state capitol to attend his rain-soaked inauguration. The actor is the embodiment of a defeated spirit of a man who has lost all peace of mind and any joy he might have taken in his accomplishments:
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank . . .
~John Milton, Paradise Lost. Book III
*The Big Clock (1948), is scheduled to be shown on TCM on May 4, 2009 at 9:30 PM
Other John Farrow movies upcoming on TCM
Farrow, Mia, What Falls Away: A Memoir, Nan A Talese, Doubleday, 1997.
Hedges, Inez, Framing Faust: Twentieth-century Cultural Struggles, Southern Illinois University Press, 2006.
Milland, Ray, Wide-Eyed in Babylon, William Morrow and Company, 1974.
Mitchell, Charles and Roberta, Audrey Totter, Versatile Queen of Noir, Classic Images, January, 1999.
Reid, John, Films Famous, Fanciful, Frolicsome & Fantastic, Lulu.com, 2006.
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