Release Date(s)1949 (July 13, 2021)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
Alias Nick Beal is an unusual film that combines political drama, film noir, and the supernatural. District Attorney Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell) has been trying for some time to gather enough evidence to have a big-time crime boss arrested and put an end to his exploitation of the city’s poorest members, but the man has always eluded his grasp. Foster has built up a pretty good case, but what’s missing is the crime boss’s records. Knowing his books could put him behind bars, the criminal had them all burned.
A mysterious fellow appears out of nowhere claiming he has the records. He identifies himself as Nick Beal (Ray Milland). He agrees to hand over those records but there’s a catch. Foster, an honest man above corruption, must surrender his soul. Eager to put his criminal nemesis in prison, Foster agrees to the deal.
Beal enlists the assistance of barfly prostitute Donna Allen (Audrey Totter) to tempt Foster away from Foster’s loyal, pure-hearted wife Martha (Geraldine Wall). Martha has taken an immediate dislike for Beal, sensing his malevolence. As Beal’s adversary, she serves as a dramatic counterweight to the mysterious stranger.
The successful prosecution of the crime boss enhances Foster’s political outlook and he’s asked to run for governor. But he’s now in the hands of Beal, who wants to be sure Foster lives up to his part of the bargain.
Director John Farrow treats this Faustian story as a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for. He starts the film as a routine crime story and it’s not until Beal appears out of the fog on a deserted waterfront pier that we realize this is far more. Beal succeeds in burnishing Foster’s impeccable record to advance his career while nurturing the dark side of his nature. Beal seems to appear and disappear out of nowhere, which doesn’t seem to get much of a reaction from most of the characters apart from an indifferent shrug, and his soft-spoken manner belies the vast power he commands. Well-dressed, even debonair, he approaches Foster and others in a form they recognize, making it easier for him to insinuate himself into a life—or soul—he covets.
Milland (The Lost Weekend), a top star at Paramount at the time, plays Beal with cunning elegance and an air of veiled menace. Cast against type, he plays Beal as a stranger who knows more about those he meets than they do themselves. He conveys an omniscient quality that is unsettling, and it’s clear something is not quite right about him. Farrow never has Milland make entrances. The camera discovers him and instantly there he is, where seconds previously he was not. It’s a simple way of highlighting the film’s fantasy element and Beal’s otherworldliness.
Totter (The Set-Up) plays a hardboiled dame from the wrong side of the tracks, a kind of role not alien to her, and she manages to elicit sympathy even though she’s chosen to be Beal’s puppet. She knows full well she’s being manipulated but doesn’t know how to extricate herself and comes to regret her involvement.
Mitchell (Stagecoach), usually cast in supporting roles, has a prominent part as Foster. Confident in his ability as a prosecutor, and eager to “get his man,” Foster is the epitome of the honest, decent politician. Under Beal’s spell, he transforms into a ruthless, power-hungry opportunist. Mitchell delivers his dialogue as if it were spontaneous and he’s thoroughly convincing as a D.A. Later, some of his actions and decisions seem contrived rather than natural, but that’s a flaw in the script.
The Region Free Blu-ray release of Alias Nick Beal on a dual-layered BD-50 disc is presented by Kino Lorber Studio Classics in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. In this black-and-white presentation, the fog scenes stand out, as they add tremendously to atmosphere. Beal virtually disappears into heavy fog, suggesting he’s more than a mere mortal. Scenes between Donna and Beal in her new, elegant apartment contain shadowy accents, a blazing fireplace, surrealistic wallpaper, and ornate plants. The opening is melodramatic, as Foster ascends a long flight of stairs in the rain on his way to his inauguration as governor. The scene has the look and feel of a man heading for his execution. In the crowded, seedy bar, Donna and a large woman get into a knock-down, drag-out fight, rolling on the floor and mauling each other. When Donna attempts to seduce Foster, she looks very attractive and smartly dressed, as opposed to her tawdry, cheap look when we first see her in the bar.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear throughout and styles vary. Mitchell speaks quickly, like a man in a perennial hurry. He slows up when he talks with Donna. George Macready, playing an influential cleric, speaks calmly and softly, as one might expect from a man of God. Milland uses a laid back, self-confident, almost arrogant tone as he manipulates those around him. He’s experienced in this form of dealmaking and confident things will go his way. Wall speaks lovingly with her husband but is cold and distant when Beal is around. Franz Waxman’s fanfare plays under the title credits and once again swells during the end credits. His music makes periodic “stabs” during key visual moments or after major bits of dialogue. It’s as if the music is alerting us to important information. The technique quickly becomes tiresome. Waxman’s score adds little else to the film’s atmosphere. Some nice sound effects accompany a thunderstorm as lighting flashes in the sky.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation and TCM’s Noir Alley host Eddie Muller poses the question, “Is Alias Nick Beal really a film noir?” It isn’t technically, but it feels like one. Director John Farrow had his pick of projects at Paramount and passed up directing Alan Ladd in The Great Gatsby. At the time of the film’s production, noir excited pervasive interest in Hollywood. The opening shot is made to look like Foster is approaching the gallows. George Macready usually played villains. Thomas Mitchell is perfectly cast in a non-showy role. Farrow and cinematographer Lionel Linden “screen tested” fog in order to get the best effect. The waterfront bar is modeled on an actual San Francisco bar that once served famous authors. The major theme of the film, an obvious morality play, is selling yourself. Audrey Totter and her role are discussed. She essentially plays two roles—the actual Donna and the Donna she will pretend to be for Foster. Ray Milland’s stand-in appears in a small role as the bookkeeper. Cary Grant would have been perfect as Nick Beal. Milland plays Beal in the Grant mode. Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer tells the story economically with a brisk pace. He knew what to include from Mindret Lord’s original story and what to omit. Noir seems to state that it’s a Godless world; we’re on our own and we better make the right decisions. Most noir shows what happens to those who make bad decisions. Alias Nick Beal reflects noir themes well, but the fantasy “spook element” is atypical of the genre.
Theatrical Trailers – Eight trailers for this and other Blu-ray titles available from Kino Lorber are included: Alias Nick Beal, So Evil My Love, The Lost Weekend, The Web, Calcutta, Panic in the Year Zero, The Premature Burial, and X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes.
Alias Nick Beal focuses on a man who makes a deal with the devil in order to achieve good yet ultimately becomes as corrupt as those he disdains. The film is solidly structured with careful attention to detail and good characters, but it departs from typical noir with a contrived ending that contrasts from the rest of the film. We’re left with an unsatisfied feeling, as if things didn’t work out as they were supposed to.
- Dennis Seuling