Alias Nick Beal handily flips the paradigm of cinematic angels in vogue with Hollywood, specifically during the 1940s. You could make a whole subgenre out of them. As its name suggests, the lynchpin character of the whole movie is Nick, though this is admittedly only a pseudonym. Across time and space, he’s come in many forms, under many names, including the serpent, Lucifer, or the Devil.
Ray Milland portrays him in bodily form ,providing a deliciously evil turn in fine threads. He’s not quite the “blonde Satan” out of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade literature, but he’s almost there, about as close as you might possibly come in the flesh. With such a devious figure pulling the strings, Alias Nick Beal becomes noir mixed with myth and allusion in a rather unusual manner. It is the first of its kind: a Faustian noir.
The story itself opens in more conventional territory. There’s an earnest, hard-working district attorney named Foster (Thomas Mitchell) who is looking to clean up local corruption, manifested as always by cigar-chomping Fred Clark with his host of slot machines and bookies just looking to rake in the dough.
Try as he might, he’s never been able to deal the definitive blow to the town’s graft. Regardless, he’s an upstanding man of principle with a devoted wife (Geraldine Wall) of many years and a solid base of friends, including local minister Reverend Garfield (George Macready). Of course, even someone like him falls to temptations; they seem innocent at first even honorable. The trajectory of his entire political career starts to change for the better, although his personal relationships are poisoned beyond repair. More on that later.
For now, he has an inauspicious meeting at the local watering hole, the dubious China Coast Cafe. It’s the kind of joint that can only exist in the foggy back lots of some Hollywood studio (in this case Paramount Pictures).
It’s the cheap, low-lit atmospherics of such an obviously stylistic or phony facade that make Alias Nick Beal feel like low-grade entertainment. With noir, however, this often proves more of a blessing, and what’s more remarkable is how impressive the cast manages to be. The cafe also happens to be a fitting place to meet the devil’s incarnate.
No, Foster doesn’t go and sign the pact right then and there. His new acquaintance is far too cunning, far too diabolical to be so direct. But it comes soon enough as his new undue influence makes an insidious impact on the politician’s life. Isn’t it true that small habits compound as days, weeks, months, and years go by before you realize how much you’ve actually changed? Whether good or bad.
Simultaneous with his public ambitions, Foster’s reverend friend helps run a boys home not unlike similar storylines in Boy’s Town or Angels With Dirty Faces. It’s a conventional if generally uninteresting element. The one moment prodding the movie’s core conflict with a stick comes with the daily Bible reading.
Nick doesn’t want to be caught dead near the good book, but the minister opens it all the same as is his practice reading the following words to his charges:
“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas and established it upon the floods. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”
If they’re not obvious already, the passage is an implicit call for Foster — to make him take heed — a warning against his current trajectory. Nick knows if Foster heeds the words, all his tireless work in interference will be thwarted. However, he’s still got some tricks up his sleeve.
One of them is named Donna Allen (Audrey Totter), a dame he found out on a street corner by the same upstanding establishment he just happened to meet Foster at. Audrey Totter does her gloriously acerbic rendition for this strange character and plays it nice and tender as well. It’s a fluid performance for a peculiar role calling for a hooker to get promoted in status to that of a campaign manager and confidante.
Suddenly, the work of devils and angels don’t look altogether dissimilar. After all, he raises this woman of ill-repute out of the gutter, gets her an apartment, drapes her in mink coats and stoles. However, it’s the ulterior motives that are most revealing.
Because eventually Nick has worked his way up — greasing the wheels of Foster’s ego as it were — so they can start talking about the murky grays of politics. His line of arguments are deceptive to the point he has his victim finds himself conceding on the same points of moral bedrock as Claude Rains in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
They buy into the lie that this is the only way to get anything done. Maybe it is partially true. Who am I to say? Conveniently, in the other picture, Thomas Mitchell was the wisecracking journalist who could observe from a comfortable distance. In this one, he’s embroiled right in the middle of the mess.
With Nick Beal constantly needling him and all the conflicting forces and voices in his life swelling, it really is a tug-of-war for his soul. Everyone wants a piece of it. His wife, the reverend, Nick, even Donna. It’s the intent that colors their true character.
Thus, Alias Nick Beal is an impeccably noirish take on spiritual warfare — the necessity of “pinning the devil to the mat” — before he totally makes you into a self-serving, arrogant person. Given the context it’s already working within, Nick Beal is a creative riff on Faust, but it never feels like full-fledged noir since the moralism is laid on a bit thick.
Neither of these elements is altogether detrimental, but it does feel like the movie is diluted in all its efforts. It’s this curious amalgam of disparate points of interest and self-reflexive in its orchestration with Milland being allowed to be villain and impresario. Again, the pieces and the resulting performances are intriguing, but it feels too cut-and-dry in the scripting department.
There’s never the great intrigue of watching a movie where we imbibe the sense of drama, romance, laughter, or whatever else. It feels like a story is being spun for the sake of Nick Beal so we can see him pulling the strings in front of the camera. Meanwhile, other themes are either cast aside or never fully explored. They could have been the building blocks for another movie entirely.
All told, I’d put it a couple rungs under the likes of The Bishop’s Wife and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. And it’s not quite on par with director John Farrow’s The Big Clock or His Kind of Woman. Milland is enough to make it nearly worth it.