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

Alias_nick_beal (1)

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

Review: Gilda (1946)

Gilda_trailer_hayworth1If you’re worried about Johnny Farrell, don’t be. I hate him~Gilda

And he hates you. That’s very apparent. But hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?…There’s a heat in it that one can feel. Didn’t you feel it tonight? ~Ballin

Gilda became synonymous with Rita Hayworth and for good reason. She was the embodiment of so many of the things found desirable by many men from a certain age. Frisky. Sultry. Beguiling. Teasing men, leading them on, and leaving them. Hating them as much as she loves them. That’s where the passion derives from — very volatile beginnings.

It’s true that Hayworth’s playfully ravishing seductress was forever immortalized in Shawshank Redemption and really in the mind’s eye of anyone who ever has seen her singing “Put the Blame on Mame” even once. She’s also, consequently, the epitome of the deadly lineage of femme fatales at times both tragic and destructive, alluring and lively. It’s difficult not to get drawn in like a moth to the flame.

But underlying such a performance is something a little more disheartening as this is only a cinematic depiction. It is not reality and yet it brings to mind a paraphrased quote that I will attribute to Hayworth, perhaps recalling her turbulent union with Orson Welles or maybe all the men who found their way into her life. “They go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me.”

The implications, of course, are far-reaching suggesting just how much this fawned over female ideal was a pure fabrication. It’s not real. Rita Hayworth could never measure up to that fantasy nor should she have to. Because while Gilda’s tantalizing as a cinematic siren, in real life she could never exist. Her passions impinge on her entire existence where she sees hatred, lust, and love all in synonymous terms. She hates Johnny and she loves him. She doesn’t want him and she does for those very reasons.

While not to downplay the negative impact the role may have had for Hayworth’s personal life, there’s no doubt of its cultural clout even today and it helps make this film-noir directed by Charles Vidor a high water mark of the dark genre for the very reasons mentioned before. Jo Eisinger’s script is also a strikingly perverse number as it begins to draw up the relationships between Gilda and her men.

Because it doesn’t end with her. Gilda needs others to play with and she’s given the perfect counterparts in Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) a man who willfully counters anything she offers up in the areas of sexual tension, embittered ridicule, or psychological warfare. It’s like they enjoy to torture each other — they enjoy to be able to make each other reel and fume. It’s all part of the twisted game they play of love and hate. He seethes with a vindictive coiled anger just waiting to be unleashed and he lets it go time after time. Sometimes upon provocation and other times out of sheer malice.

It all finds roots in a past we can only presume about and it’s true that all three of our leads are shrouded in some mystery when we’re introduced to them. First, Johnny Farrell a smart aleck gambler who gets himself a job as the right-hand crony for Ballin Mundson (George Macready) a man who is far more than a simple casino magnate. His business dealings run a little broader and more clandestine than he initially lets on.

Farrell’s a quick learner and ambitious so he moves up the ranks and soon he’s got the most prized position by Ballin’s side as his closest confidante and most importantly of all he’s there to watch over the other man’s wife — his favorite treasure to flaunt — the one and only Gilda.

It’s in that unspoken past that Gilda and Johnny learned to disdain each other and it stokes the flames of their relationship. It’s brutality mixed with sensuality which is at one time disconcerting but at the same time hard to pull away from. Again, moths to the flame.  It’s so wickedly twisted with rage and passion and all those human emotions that make us despise one another one moment only to make us no be able to live without each other in the next.

At a certain point, there’s no longer any sense in trying to draw up sides whether it’s feeling sorry for Gilda or empathetic toward Farrell and the thoroughly uncomfortable position he has been placed in as keeper of the bosses wife. Both of them have the makeup of true noir protagonists.

Otherwise, Rudolph Mate’s gorgeous imagery is absolutely fantastic and is certainly worthy of simply being marveled at on multiple occasions for its delicious compositions and use of shadow. Hayworth is rendered even more beguiling and Macready becomes an even more perplexing figure masked in darkness. Meanwhile, the Carnival celebrations are cast as stunning spectacle and over the top extravagance that’s also rudely disrupted by murder.

One could take it as a metaphor suggesting that the post-war era had commenced with a flourish but that cannot completely get rid of the sour taste left over from the war. A veil of darkness still remains.  Along similar lines, there’s a bit of Casablanca’s tension running through this film, and its atmosphere, while not quite on par with its predecessor, still rings with a lot of character.

The roulette wheels are in fine form and the establishment is full of its own rogue gallery of humorous and foreboding figures alike. The always lovable Uncle Pio provides a dose of good humor but there are also treacherous Germans, numerous rich boy toys, and a surprisingly civil government agent who all make a habit of frequenting the most popular casino in Buenos Aires.

It might be true what Johnny says about gambling and women not mixing but then again with the lens of film-noir they prove to be a high octane combination, representing vice and sensuality, two of its most readily available commodities.

4.5/5 Stars

The Big Clock (1948)

TheBigClock.jpgWith its rather dreary title aside, The Big Clock is actually an enjoyable thriller that works like well-oiled clockwork. It’s true that oftentimes the most relatable noir heroes are not the hardboiled detectives, although they might be tougher and grittier, it’s the hapless everymen who we can more easily empathize with. Bogart, Powell, and Mitchum are great but sometimes it’s equally enjoyable to have someone who doesn’t quite fit the elusive parameters that we unwittingly draw up for film-noir. Ray Milland is a handsome actor and he was at home in both screwball comedies (Easy Living) and biting drama (The Lost Weekend). He’s not quite what you would describe as a prototypical noir hero.

In some fascinating way, The Big Clock falls somewhere in the middle of those two reference points and to explain the very reasons it becomes necessary to start from the beginning. In fact, our story opens in a cold open that’s foreboding, shadowy and tense. The reasons being we don’t quite know yet and that’s how we get to know George Stroud (Milland), a workaholic chief editor of a crime magazine. He’s got a lovely wife (Margaret O’Sullivan) and a kid but, really, he’s married to his vocation. He’s never even been on a proper honeymoon.

And the reason for all this is Mr. Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) the newspaper magnate with the vice-like grip and enigmatic way about him. He’s very practical in how he shows his displeasure (docking pay and firing employees at will) and it also allows him to exercise complete control in all facets of his business. That and the fact that his life is constantly on schedule, perfectly epitomized by the giant clock that has become the emblematic tourist attraction of his empire.

It’s a fascinating reflection of modern times circa 1940s Hollywood with international communication, journalists, and media conglomerates helping the world to function on a national level with mass media. Oddly enough, the story hardly conjures up Citizen Kane but instead the crime-filled frames of While the City Sleeps.

This film functions on two layers due to the fact that someone has been murdered. The blame is being pinned on a phantom man who looks strikingly like our hero, but simultaneously, the evil lurks close at hand. And things begin to fall into place. Strout is called upon to close in this criminal but only he knows that the man they are trying to capture is him. It’s complicated by the fact that, conveniently, he’s also the only one who knows for sure of his own innocence. After all, he would have known if he murdered someone. Here lies the tension as the film comes full circle back to its beginning – back to its climactic moments. Now we comprehend what’s at stake.

But what sets The Big Clock apart is the satisfaction in every little human interaction. The many characterizations are surprisingly lively and are at times fit more for a comedy than the darkened hallways of film-noir. Rita Johnson takes well as a bit of a femme fatale while Laughton pulls off his role with a certain sphinxlike iciness. Meanwhile, Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester delivers a scene-stealing performance as an eccentric artist who finds herself at the center of this entire investigation because of one of her very outlandish (and incriminating) paintings. And as every noir needs a thug, a menacing, mute Harry Morgan carries the mantle as is necessary–thank goodness he got promoted to M*A*S*H in due time. Everyone else, from the bartender to the elevator girl, to bar regulars all have wonderful moments to shine and show some personality that fills out the frames of the narrative.

Furthermore, John Seitz’s photography is on point, his camera roving with the necessary precision making for dynamic sequences while also developing the perfect tonalities of light and dark within the corridors of the mega news conglomerate. Director John Farrow is not all that well-remembered, but either way, The Big Clock stands tall as a quality film-noir that still somehow finds ways to be invariably funny. It’s a rare but still greatly welcomed combination.

4/5 Stars