Post WWII, a bunch of French critics saw American movies for the first time since the German occupation ended. They were shocked by how dark and cynical Hollywood had become during the war years. Gone were the optimism, bright lights and happy endings of the 1930’s, replaced by films about crimes of passion and greed, with hard-boiled characters as dark as the shadows that now filled the screen. They called these movies Film Noir, a fancy-sounding French name for “Dark Film” that gave them an air of class and artistic importance that very few of them ever aspired to achieve. In fact, the term film noir seems better known than the movies that inspired it, as most of these titles seem to be gathering dust, waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation.
Here in the Dark Corner we will explore those films, both remembered and forgotten, famous and infamous, from the A-pictures of the big studios to the B-films of poverty row.
Who knows, you just might like what you see.
ALIAS NICK BEAL (Not rated) 93 min. Directed by: John Farrow. Written by: Jonathan Latimer from a story by Mindret Lord. Starring: Ray Milland, Audrey Totter, Thomas Mitchell. Cinematography: Lionel Lindon. Original Music by: Franz Waxman.
“We’re in the 20th century, Tom. Nobody’s believed in such things since the Salem witch burnings. Besides, aren’t there a few items missing? Where’s the tail and the horns? Where’s the smell of sulfur and brimstone? And where’s the contract you’re talking about, signed in blood and promising the delivery of one slightly used soul?”
“Maybe the devil knows it’s the 20th century too, Joseph.”
Even though Halloween has passed, the time normally reserved for horror movies, I’ve decided to still take this opportunity to look at a rare example of a film that qualifies as both a film noir and a supernatural horror movie, 1949’s Alias Nick Beal.
Alias Nick Beal was the second collaboration between director John Farrow, producer Endre Bohem and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer that combined elements of the supernatural with noir, their first being the 1948 Edward Robinson vehicle Night Has a Thousand Eyes. This time around they would be doing a re-telling of the Faust legend – a story, coincidentally, co-star Thomas Mitchell’s was very familiar with: he was originally slated to play Daniel Webster in The Devil and Daniel Webster, another Faust inspired tale, but a freak accident on set forced the producers to replace him with Edward Arnold.
Like in The Devil and Daniel Webster (if he hadn’t been injured), Thomas Mitchell would be playing a good and decent lawyer/politician (yes, an oxymoron), this time district attorney Joseph Foster. Foster is the kind of likeable everyman that Thomas Mitchell can play in his sleep: he’s a faithful and loving husband to his wife Martha (Geraldine Wall), is heavily involved in charity organizations like a boy’s club for troubled, disadvantaged kids, and as DA has been an “incorruptible enemy of the forces of evil”. Foster has managed to rid the city of all the gangsters that have plagued his city except for one by the name of Hansen, whom he is obsessed with bringing down. No sooner does he declare that he would “give his soul” to convict Hansen, he gets a cryptic message offering him help in doing just that.
This is where we finally are introduced to “Nick Beal” strolling out of the fog from the end of a pier, whistling an eerie tune. As played by Ray Miland, Beal is suave, glib, and urbane, but also unmistakably sinister. Nick shows Foster where he can find evidence to use against Hansen; however, he has to obtain it without a warrant. Despite some moral qualms, Foster decides to uses the illegally obtained evidence, justifying it as a necessary evil to take down Hansen.
So begins his corruption at the hands of Beal, who like all great manipulators plays on his victim’s own weaknesses: in this case, Foster’s vanity, ambition, and ego. After bringing down Hansen and becoming a minor celebrity, Foster is approached by the Reform Party to be their candidate for governor. At first he runs a clean campaign, but with Beal around as an advisor Foster begins making deals with shady political machines, telling himself that he will renege once elected. However, as hard as Foster tries to convince himself and others that he hasn’t changed, the truth is that Beal has whet his appetite for power and status.
Of course, ambition, greed and vanity are not the only vices that a man can be tempted with. There is also lust, and in this film it comes in the form of Audrey Totter. A veteran of many film noirs, Totter has played Femme Fatales before, but she has never been better than in this film, nor as complex. Here she plays Donna Allen, a down-on-her-luck ex-actress who is now a barfly (and heavily implied to also being a prostitute) that Nick Beal sets up to seduce Foster. Despite agreeing to lead Foster astray, Donna begins to feel sympathy for him; the fact that Nick Beal is so interested in ruining such a good-hearted man for apparently no reason troubles her conscience.
What bothers her even more, however, is Beal’s knack for appearing and disappearing out of nowhere, and his prescient ability to know what someone is going to say, do, or are thinking. In one unforgettable scene, Beal has Donna rehearse a conversation she will have with Foster later that night, telling her not only what she should say but also how Foster will respond – and much to Donna’s amazement and horror it plays out exactly as he predicted it would, verbatim. Donna begins to suspect that maybe Beal isn’t just a devil, but the Devil.
Ms. Allen isn’t the only one to come to the conclusion that Nick is actually “Old Nick”. Foster’s best friend, Reverend Thomas Garfield (played by George MacCready in one of his very few good guy roles), also suspects this, but he can’t convince a skeptical Foster, who waves it off as primitive superstition (leading to the exchange I quoted in the beginning of this review).
The concept of selling your soul to the devil sounds silly and preposterous (which might explain why most versions of the Faust legend have been comedies), but one of the strengths of the film is that they don’t treat it that way. The tone of the film is very serious and earnest, and a lot of credit for that has to go to director John Farrow, who was a devout Catholic (he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre by Pope Pius XI). He treats the threat of eternal damnation as very real, and that attitude helps make the idea of a “modern” day Lucifer much more credible and gripping.
Of course, another reason we can buy the concept is thanks to Ray Milland’s performance as the “Prince of Darkness”. Milland is obviously having a blast playing Beal, a character who is charming, intelligent, and above all dangerous. When Nick Beal says he doesn’t like to be touched, you know you better listen. Of course, Beal also has a wry sense of humor, as when he overhears a sidewalk preacher testify:
Preacher: Yes brethren, every word is true. I’ve walked in the darkness, glory be. I’ve wrestled the Devil and thrown him. I’ve pinned his shoulders to the mat. Yes, I’ve pinned his shoulders to the mat.
Nick Beal: I wonder if he knows it’s two falls out of three?
Despite the presence of the occult, Alias Nick Beal doesn’t have much in the way of shocks or obvious scares (although Lionel Lindon’s wonderful lighting helps create an atmosphere of dread throughout the film). Nor does it need them. It is much more concerned with the existential horror of losing one’s soul, something that firmly plants it in the realm of film noir. Like Force of Evil, Double Indemnity, Nightmare Alley, and Ace in the Hole, Alias Nick Beal is a tale of temptation and corruption, of the common man who falls from grace. Except this movie goes a little bit further than the others. In almost all film noirs the stakes are for the protagonist’s metaphorical “soul”; Beal just raised the ante and made it for the real deal.