Sunday, November 05, 2006

Alias Nick Beal (1949)

This film 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 not hoofs 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 colleges to run for governor. The once squeaky-clean Foster agrees. 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 possible lover. There are some perks that go with working for the devil. Beal gives Donna a huge swank 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 this story. He was originally cast as Daniel Webster in the 1941 version of “Devil and Daniel Webster”. After suffering a fractured skull during shooting, he was replaced by equally stout Edward Arnold.

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 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”.

The film, directed by John Farrow (his credits include “Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, “His Kind of Woman”, “Where Danger Lives”, and even the quirky “Unholy Wife”) with cinematographer Lionel Lindon (the lens man went on to make “Quicksand”, “Hell’s Island”, “The Turning Point” and later “The Manchurian Candidate”) created an appropriately shadowy dark look for the film. Even the indoor scenes are dank with strange lighting angles.

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.

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 metaphysical dimension. It’s a shame that this one has been almost completely forgotten by film fans.

Written by Steve-O


  1. A most excellent review. ALIAS NICK BEAL is a true sleeper. It's not known by many because it was never on video and is a little hard to come by in good prints. Looks like you tracked down a pretty decent copy.

    As a sidelight, let me direct you to SOUL OF A MONSTER (1942). Not a horror movie, this one stars George Macready as a dying man who trades his soul to the devil to gain a few more years on the planet. The devil's emmissary is played chillingly by Rose Hobart. A very dark, very Noir-looking film. It's a little too brief and feels truncated, feels more like a B movie. But it makes a great companion to NICK BEAL.
  2. Wonderful writeup of a criminally overlooked film. How the devil can Paramount keep this one in the can? I'd love to have a pristine copy on DVD. The performances by Milland, Totter and Macready are terrific. Love the scene where Macready asks ``Beal'' if he'd like to read a Bible passage to the kids. Another thing that drives this film is Franz Waxman's typically eiree score. I'd love to have this in its entirety, too, either the original OST (fat chance) or a repro score. This one has been high on my NOTW list for awhile.
  3. I'm so happy I didn't think anyone else cared. I saw this when I was about 13, and never forgot it. Also looked for years to see if it was available in any form. All i could remember well was the title, Ray Milland and Thomas Mitchell.
  4. An unforgettable picture! Can anything be done to get it released on DVD?
  5. My Goodness! This is a FABULOUS web site! I have never seen the movie "Alias Nick Beal" and just happened to catch the title as I was on my way back to another web room. I have heard a radio version of this movie. Incredible double-entendre dialogue given to whoever played the role on radio. It might also have been Ray Milland.

    Must say that this is an absolutely incredible web site put together by Steve-O. And so I shall visit it more often. Graphics and layout outstanding. A Plus!

    Jack Davidson
  6. thanks for the kind words, Jack.
  7. I second what Jack said... awesome website!! I just discovered it and am thoroughly enjoying all the extra touches like video snippits, detailed synopses, etc! Thank you!

  8. Where can anyone get a copy of the film Alais Nick Beal?