Steve wrote this essay in 2006, when ALIAS NICK BEAL definitely seemed utterly forgotten. Fortunately, the film has been championed by many (including Eddie Muller) and Kino-Lorber has put out a DVD and a blu-ray for the film in recent years. I'm sure Steve will be glad to know that his lament at the close of his essay is no longer applicable.
Alias Nick Beal is an interesting combination: an otherworldly fantasy combined with film noir. It’s a “modern” sell-your-soul-to-the-devil story which moves along nicely thanks to a top-notch cast.
Ray Milland is Nick Beal--who may be better known as “Old Nick” or sometimes Satan. The mysterious shadowy man shows up shortly after District Attorney Joseph Foster says aloud that he’d sell his soul to convict a local mob boss. The mysterious Beal, wearing a suit in lieu of hooves and horns, offers Foster the evidence to convict the man. There is a catch: Foster gets the information from Beal at a secret waterfront location--without a search warrant. He uses the evidence anyway, knowing that he got it unethically.
Fame follows the DA after the successful conviction and he’s convinced by his colleagues to run for governor. The formerly squeaky-clean Foster agrees. But when he finds that running for office isn’t as easy as he thought, he begins to take cash and favors from Beal.
Beal not only corrupts the man with money and power: he also tempts him with sex. Donna Allan (Audrey Totter), a local barfly and failed actress, is recruited by Beal to be Foster’s assistant and (later) his possible lover. (There are some perks that go with working for the devil!) Beal gives Donna a huge, swanky apartment with a full wardrobe. Then he gets her a job working closely with the DA, who eventually falls in lust with her.
Things fall apart quickly for Foster after he’s elected governor. His wife is so distant from him now that she doesn’t show up for his acceptance speech. Beal has also convinced him to sign a contract selling his soul when police come knocking at the D.A.’s door to question him about a murder.
Will Foster be able to rid himself of Beal and return to old and honest ways of doing things?
Milland is always interesting to watch. From his first moment on screen walking out of the fog and into a dockside bar, Milland appears to be having fun. Usually cast as the good guy in films like The Big Clock, Ministry of Fear and The Uninvited, Milland does a charming job in this one not only as the bad guy but also as a second lead to Thomas Mitchell. (Milland would be even more sinister in Dial M for Murder.)
Mitchell is the star of the film, even though he’s billed third in the credits. With a wide-eyed pudgy face, he seems to be the perfect actor to play the everyman honest politician corrupted by a lust for power. Mitchell is no stranger to such a story: originally cast as Daniel Webster in the 1941 version of The Devil and Daniel Webster, he had to withdraw in favor of Edward Arnold after suffering a fractured skull during shooting.
The best performance in the film, however, is from film-noir queen Audrey Totter. Totter gets a juicy part as a down-on-her-luck woman who is morphed into a cleaned up professional woman.
Her first scene in the film is great. Drunk, loud and chain smoking, Totter gets in a bar room brawl with another woman after calling her “piano legs.” Classic.
Beal meets up with her after she’s physically tossed from the bar. Later, she’s seduced by Beal’s words--not to mention a full-length fur coat! One of the best exchanges in the film is when Totter’s having a drunken conversation with a bartender: "What time is it?" "You just asked me that." "I didn't ask you what I just asked you, I asked you what time it is." The screenplay is by Jonathan Latimer, who also inked The Glass Key, Nocturne, They Won't Believe Me, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, and The Big Clock.
Many of those Latimer-penned films, including this one, were directed by John Farrow (who would later move to RKO and direct more offbeat noirs: His Kind of Woman, Where Danger Lives, and the extra-quirky Unholy Wife. Cinematographer Lionel Lindon created an appropriately shadowy dark look for the film. Even the indoor scenes are dank with strange lighting angles. Lindon would lens many more noirs in the 1950s: Quicksand, Hell’s Island, The Turning Point, wrapping up his noir resume on a high note in the 1960s with The Manchurian Candidate.
A few other noir icons make their presence known in the film. The soundtrack is by Franz Waxman. Supporting roles played by George Macready and Fred Clark are entertaining as usual.
A most strange re-naming of the film in the UK...what were they thinking??
This tale about the seduction and fall of a promising politician echoes themes explored in the same year's All the King's Men but adds a metaphysical dimension. It’s a shame that this one has been almost completely forgotten by film fans.