Welcome to Fistful of Features, a celebration of film preservation through physical media and the discussion of cinematic treasures to maintain their relevance in the cultural lexicon. Today we’ll be discussing a buried gem from the age of film noir.
Filmmaker John Farrow’s Faustian gothic mystery thriller Alias Nick Beal is making its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Kino Lorber.
“Who holds the devil, let him hold him well,
He hardly will be caught a second time.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: Part 1
The tale told in Alias Nick Beal has been told for hundreds of years, but Jonathan Latimer and Mindret Lord’s took a pulpy approach to updating this classic German folktale, and the marriage of seedy film noir and the hint of supernatural is a marriage that works so well that it’s amazing that it had been attempted so rarely. Just as in Alan Parker’s horror noir masterpiece Angel Heart, director John Farrow (The Big Clock) wisely cast Thomas Mitchell, who you will recognize as Uncle Billy from It’s A Wonderful Life, as his somewhat straight-laced protagonist Joseph Foster. Mitchell’s natural persona brings an aura to this role that allows us to empathize with his internal struggle of being led astray by temptation, seemingly for the greater good, or allowing his conscience, being his wife in this scenario, dissuade his hasty negotiations with a dubious stranger.
Cinematographer Lionel Lindon (The Blue Dahlia) does a splendid job of building atmosphere, and when we’re first introduced to our mysterious antagonist Nick Beal (Ray Milland), there never lies any doubt that this character inhabits otherworldly qualities. Milland has always had a gift for playing playing charismatic sociopaths. Look no further than his portrayal of diabolical Tony Wendice in Dial M for Murder.
Whenever the film sways between locations it plays to the strengths of the different elements in this story. The interior shots are mostly dramatic and play to the political aspects. Sometimes it has a haunted house vibe when Beal mysteriously vanished in and out of Foster’s estate. The exterior shots are layered in fog and Beal’s haunting whistle echoes through a city that kind of feels like a forties’ Gotham City that would likely be populated by criminal rogues, giving Mitchell’s character a Harvey Dent-like disposition of wishing to rid the seedy streets of criminal vermin by political virtue. It’s never quite clear who Beal is aligned with, but it’s consistently insinuated that he’s made deals in the criminal underworld that give him mortal advantage on the playing field, as if his hinted demonic origin wasn’t enough. Beal often gives the presence of a local mob enforcer, which would make sense since the notorious crime ring seems a suitable playground for the prince of darkness to come out and play. What really drives the gothic vibe of this noir hybrid home is the chilling score from composer Franc Waxman, who was also responsible for the incredible music in Bride of Frankenstein and Rear Window (1954).
Beal plants the idea that Mr. Foster can climb to the top of the local political ladder with finesse, though truthfully Foster doesn’t need much conviction to ignore his wife’s (Geraldine Wall) better judgement when he’s always been blindsided by his political aspirations. The local neighborhood minister (George Macready) is a minor but pivotal character whose warnings to not trust Beal are the only narrative device that really offers much conflict…that is except for when the infernal stranger is forced to seduce Mr. Foster with the help of an unsuspecting bar patron Donna Allen (Audrey Totter). He maliciously and undeservedly blackmails Allen to seduce this aspiring political pawn and, honestly, he didn’t need much convincing to cheat on his loyal and faithful wife. The mechanics of the pulp material play out in typical fashion as deplorable characters form facetious alliances with cold-blooded motivations that will become manipulatively justifiable in the way they choose to spin their own narratives. In other hands, Alias Nick Beal could have been a forgettable by-the-numbers film noir that come by the dozen, but the combination of noir, political thriller, and supernatural folktale works splendidly and the overall aesthetic seems ripped straight off a dime novel from a newspaper stand in Hell’s Kitchen. What really makes the supernatural elements feasible are the way they’re implied and, until the foreboding conclusion, leave much to the imagination. That combined with the atmospheric setting and cinematography and alongside Milland’s convincingly menacing presence, this film ends up invoking a sense of wondrous macabre, not unlike the kind you feel after a well-told campfire story.
This is a title from Kino Lorber you won’t want to miss. It’s light on extras but Eddie Miller’s noir commentaries are never something to skip out on.
Alias Nick Beal Special Features
- Audio Commentary by Film Historian Eddie Muller
- Theatrical Trailer
Available on Blu-ray July 13th, 2021.
For information, head to Kino Lorber’s Alias Nick Beal website.