Alias Nick Beal (1949): Ray Milland’s a Devil

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This is my entry in the CMBA Politics on Film Blogathon.

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.

3/5 Stars

Tension (1949): Between The Good and The Bad Girl

220px-TensionPoster.jpgBarry Sullivan has an absolute field day as a homicide cop, Lt. Collier Bonnabel, with very calculated methods of getting to the root of every crime. Whether it comes by pushing, cajoling, romancing, tricking, flattering — he’ll do whatever is necessary. What matters to him is to keep stretching them because everyone has a breaking point. You just have to know how to work them so they slip up.

It’s fitting because he remains as our narrator throughout this entire story. Between his fedora and voiceover narration, Tension easily earns the moniker of film noir. He picks up the story at Coast-to-Coast all-night drugstore in Culver City where the bookish Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) maintains an unsatisfying but well-paying gig as manager.

His only reason for holding onto the job is not only security but it’s the only way to try and keep his girl (Audrey Totter). Because she’s a real horror — dissatisfied with the middling life he can give her — and constantly batting her eyes at anyone who gives her the time of day.

Quimby is such a passive and nervous husband; he’s always deathly afraid to walk into his room above the drugstore at night for fear the bed will be empty and she won’t be there waiting for him. You see, his entire worth and aspiration at a middle-class lifestyle are maintained through her. And yet when she scoffs at his attempts to buy them a house in the suburbs, its a rude awakening.

It turns out it doesn’t matter. She finds someone else and packs her bags. What follows is a sudden departure to shack up with the substantially wealthier Barney Deager. You see the same conundrum from The Best Years of Our Lives. They were youthful and on the high of WWII patriotism, but now settling into the status quo, he’s not as cute or funny as he used to be in San Diego. Everyday tedium is no fun for a girl like Claire.

Audrey Totter is easily a standout, and she even gets some saucy music to introduce her and the coda proceeds to follow her into just about every room. She’s almost in the mold of Gloria Grahame — another iconic femme fatale — except her eyes are more bitter, even severe. They burn through just about everyone.

Warren makes his way to the beach and has a confrontation with her brawny boyfriend, but what is an unassertive guy like him (now with broken glasses) suppose to do in the face of such an affront? His options seem hopelessly few. It leads to a needed trip to the eye doctor for new spectacles, and he reluctantly leaves with the year’s newest invention — hard contact lenses.

His soda jerk buddy behind the counter plants the other seed. It drives him to murder. Quimby then gains a whole new perspective, the doctor even touts that he with be an entirely different person, in the most literal sense; he takes on a new name as Paul Sothern. His entire temperament and level of confidence changes. It’s humanly unbelievable and all because of an optometrist. I should have gotten contacts sooner.

The newfound man sets up a residence in Westwood to put his plans in motion. He now has a cool, calculated dopleganger for the perfect crime, available to him at a moment’s notice.

Here we have the most roundabout and, dare we say, ludicrous way to premeditate and perfect a murder. Back in the days when taking on a new identity was a breeze. Erasing and vanishing was a matter of covering up a few loose ends and not leaving a forwarding address.

Basehart could easily be the father of Ryan O’Neal in What’s Up Doc? While not necessarily a taxing role, he is called on to play two characters as he plays opposite two very different women. Cyd Charisse is the sweet and shapely photographer who falls for Paul Sothern, despite knowing so little about him. She is oblivious to his double life, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Still, as is the case in many film noir, the very overt foils are created and Tension extends them even further. The protagonist has a choice between two women and with them two distinct lives. One is represented by the decadent yet fractured China doll, the blonde spider woman who will not release him from her web.

Then there’s the simpler, sweeter pipe cleaner doll, the brunette good girl who is almost angelic in nature and totally available to help the hero realize their happy ending, which remains in constant jeopardy the entirety of the film.

The wrinkle that really spoils it is when Claire slinks back into his life once more, and he is implicated in a murder. All of a sudden the alternate reality he started carving out for himself is altogether finished. Sothern is quashed and Quimby is suffocating in a life he assumed would be gone forever.

The cops must come into the equation now, asking questions, poking around, and pressing on all the sore spots in hopes someone will break. All character logic aside, the picture does ascribe to a certain amount of tautness suggested in its name, but so could any number of movies — even John Berry’s next film He Ran All The Way.

But I found myself enjoying its contrivances more and more with time. Because each twist of the corkscrew made for another pleasure. Barry Sullivan takes great relish leaning on everyone. William Conrad, for once, is on the right side of the law and still gets to play a gruff character.

However, it is his partner who sets up some very convenient and slightly awkward interactions on a hunch. Quimby is forced to interact with his girl from another life as if it was just a piece of pure happenstance. Then, Claire and the purported “other woman” are somehow pulled together accidentally to churn up a little jealousy.

Bonnabel is like Columbo at his most nefarious, except slightly more conniving and less scruffily endearing. He nabs the dame because, being conveniently trapped in a lie, she confesses. Unlike most Columbo villains, she struts out as defiantly as ever. There’s no recompense or sense of somber civility. With the way she was going before, why bother? Thankfully Totter’s performance is not compromised; she remains icy to the end.

3.5/5 Stars