Alias Nick Beal (1947)

Alias Nick Beal (1947) is a fantasy-mystery film noir with occasionally spiritual overtones, which tries in its way to re-tell the Faust myth, setting it in the milieu of American state and domestic politics.

Although Thomas Mitchell receives third billing in Alias Nick Beal (1947), he is the central character, whose rather erratic journey we follow, as he discovers that politics is messier than he thought, and that simply wanting to clean up the city, is never going to be enough.

Supporting this journey are Ray Milland who plays the eponymous Nick Beal, who is in fact none other the Lucifer himself, at work on the city streets and in the salons of offices of 1940s America.

At the very least, the appearance of the devil in Faustian form, in a fedora and in the guise of Ray Milland, makes for a new and effective take on the film noir punishment and redemption motif. 

There is not any ambiguity around who Nick Beal really is, although at times he seems to adopt human modes of appearing and disappearing, such as backing slowly away when he might ordinarily vanish. The biggest giveaway is Nick Beal's inability to touch a Bible, which makes for a quick and effective climax, and in fact it's also all it takes to beat him. 

Fred Clark in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

The devil's docklands dive in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

Likely the reason a film noir freak might come to Alias Nick Beal (1947) is the figure of Ray Milland. This is a few years after his Academy Award winning performance in The Lost Weekend, and Milland is pulling all sorts of character motions into his repertoire. 

Thomas Mitchell in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

Ray Milland in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

Here is a captivating villain, alongside Audrey Totter who is a full on noir diva called Donna who transforms herself from a lowlife to a career woman. She's a complex character and develops fast to the stage where she doubts her newfound role, in a Mephistophelean mess that seems to be swirl of evil that threatens to suck her and many others down.

John Farrow and Audrey Totter both named Alias Nick Beal (1947) it as one of their best films, and as far as deal with the devil pictures go, although this seems to be a more popular theme in later decades, with Rosemary's Baby (1968) kicking off something noisy and powerful that has never quietened down, this seems to be the only deal with the devil picture from the 1940s. 

The devil backs off from the Bible in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

The fantasy noir of Alias Nick Beal is the exact parallel universe that a certain strain of the style evokes. This is not documentary style film noir shot on the streets, but a studio creation, a wonder of the sound stage, with fog and claustrophobia controlled enough to create a complete vision of life on the other side. 

George Macready as Bible wielding force for good in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

The script of this 93-minute film was by Jonathan Latimer, who wrote The Big Clock (1948), a super seminal classic film noir about some of the same fantastical themes, in an equally parallel and quite mad unioverse somewhere on the sound stage.

He also worked on the very atmospheric Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1948) the year before. George Macready plays against type as the priestly bible wielder who is the only human who has a chance against this satanic father of all film noir weakness, Nick Beal, worked to a tee by Ray Milland.

The morality of Alias Nick Beal is not picture perfect film noir. The District Attorney played by Thomas Mitchell in a rare leading role does not want the wicked treasures of the underworld for immoral reasons, which is quite odd in the film noir stakes.

Audrey Totter and Ray Milland in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

Instead Mitchell's character is reform-minded, seeking only the powers of darkness to help him on his rise so he can use his then ill-gained power for good -- a great plan? He is rumpled and bothered by his inability to do anything with the power he has, until he meets dark shortcut offering Nick Beal at a waterfront bar, which becomes something of a trope in itself, as a venue for these devilish dealings.

The dock is of course where we leave from, and a place of drift. Nobody who is there at the dock is there to stay and is there for any other reason than they may be forced to by the act of passing through, and so it's a perfect devil's pick up joint. 

Ray Milland in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

Nick Beal is the devil for the 1940s. He doesn’t come out and say so, and each time he’s on the screen again, he maybe knows too much or hints too much, but generally he haunts in and out of the shadows, exuding a kind of power and control that is convincing in the context.

Soon he’s got Thomas Mitchell's character Foster under his control and persuading him on as only the Devil could: “Think of all the good you could do if you were the governor,” he says.

The morality is not as we might expect, and politically speaking the unspoken context and agreement states that in order to do this power of political good, it does not matter how the position of power is achieved. 

Ray Milland in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

It is fair to ask if any of this is classic or even quotidian film noir? Is it a crime film? It's not in any way a working crime film under any pretence or disguise that the film noir variety offers, and it offers many varieties. It's true there are a few cheap gangsters in the movie and a massive shot of blackmail on the part of Nick Beal, and there is also a heft of graft and corruption on a state and strictly city level that marks out the word crime quite clearly. 

What gives Alias Nick Beal (1947) its noir constituents is that it's able to take a darkened fantasy and place it in a moral context, and do so with shadowy mis en scene countered with what is at heart a story of political and moral failing, corruption in fact.

Thomas Mitchell in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

Seduction and crime mingle with ambition and greed, and in any other circumstance this might have been enough for a solid 1940s film noir -- to add in the devil offers a unique dimension, even unto the exorcist-style posturings of George Macready as Reverend Thomas Garfield, with his super sensitive bible always able to wild a little power over the lurking and all powerful villain.

This is the gentle style of film noir which settles for the message that there is darkness in every heart, which is just as well because the devil cannot win in 1947. Audrey Totter as a woman of ill repute also suffers a happy ending with the banishment of Nick Beal, and she is usually tough and acts beautifully with contempt for the men around her. The reverse towards goodness is well within her range however, and as she begins to see what is happening, she smartens up her ways.

Thomas Mitchell and Audrey Totter in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

The successful and honest District Attorney who is working on a big and highly publicized case against a local mobster, Hanson, starts and ends the film a different prospect, having perhaps appreciated the depths of corporate crime, which law enforcement and politics can never beat. 

Unfortunately the main incriminating piece of evidence that the DA is about to lay claim to, Hanson's financial books, ends up burned. 

In desperation the DA cries out 'I'd give my soul to nail him!', at which point he receives a message that someone named Nick Beal can help him. 

As he works with miracle worker Nick Beal, the DA's his career skyrockets, and he gets asked to run for governor after the successful trial. Beal meddles too with Foster's run for governor and closes a few deals that Foster would not have made himself including a deal with another criminal, Faulkner (played by Fred Clark), to buy votes. 

Again the morals kick in and Foster doesn't like it but the deals are so beneficial to his election chances that he accepts them, hinting perhaps at the impossibility of honesty and democracy once a certain point has been achieved.

Somewhat alienated from his friends including Reverend Thomas Garfield (George Macready) who thinks he's seen Beal's face before, Foster really finds out after he's become governor that when you sell your soul to the devil, the devil fully intends to collect.

Beal manipulates Foster by picking up street walker, Donna Allen (played by Audrey Totter), and puts her up in an excellent modern-looking apartment, with impressionistic art, expensive clothes and jewellery galore. 

Fatalism in noir -- Thomas Mitchell en route to the devil's destiny in Alias Nick Beal (1947)

Nick Beal grooms her thoroughly in fact creating a central position in Foster's campaign, and shows her how to behave around Foster. Before he knows it, the idiot male Foster has fallen for her, and is neglecting his marriage to Martha (Geraldine Wall). 

Foster does know that he's being blackmailed by Beal at various points but he can't do anything about it and finds himself unwilling because his career is still doing well. But the true manipulation kicks in when Beal has Foster sign a contract that he will give Beal a meaningless post in his gubernatorial administration, with an innocent-sounding clause that should he fail to do so something mean will happen.

Alias Nick Beal (1947) at Wikipedia

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