Sunday, March 30, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Alias Nick Beal (1949) at the Noir City Film Festival

What a great evening tonight at the Noir City Film Festival!

I met up with my friend Lindsay and met her sister for the first time, and I also had the chance to meet Brian of Rupert Pupkin Speaks. It's always great to finally meet someone with whom you've corresponded!

It was Audrey Totter night at the festival, and Audrey's daughter and granddaughter were in the house as we paid tribute to a much-loved actress and watched two of her films in 35mm prints. Tonight's double bill led off with TENSION (1949), which I last saw and reviewed five years ago. I couldn't believe it had been that long!

I felt a sense of pure glee watching TENSION, which has deliciously fun performances by Totter, Barry Sullivan, and William Conrad, plus young Cyd Charisse at her loveliest. Although the audience ate up Audrey's every scheming moment, it was fun that it was Cyd -- telling off Sullivan and making clear she'll stand by her man -- who received applause as she walked out of the drugstore after her speech. A wonderful moment, not least because her reaction was so uncliched. TENSION is great fun, and I recommend the DVD to any noir fan who hasn't seen it yet.

As for ALIAS NICK BEAL, it's amazing how creepy a nonviolent, non-gory film can be thanks to a good script, some fog, haunting music (by Franz Waxman), and terrific acting.

Ray Milland stars in the title role of this morality play about the temptation of a candidate for governor (Thomas Mitchell). As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Nick Beal is in league with the devil, if not the devil himself.

When crusading district attorney Joe Foster (Mitchell) is recruited to run for governor, Nick Beal shows up to smooth his path. Yet the more Nick helps Joe, the more Nick demands in return, until Joe finds he's given up everything good for which he's stood.

Milland is quite remarkable, mixing smooth-talking charm with steely-cold eyes which have a tendency to widen when he's angered. (At present, Nick Beal's beautifully designed entrance can be seen in a brief clip on YouTube.) Nick Beal's unexpected appearances become downright unnerving, for the audience as well as those he's stalking in the film, and the whistled tune which accompanies him is most effective.

Milland is fascinating in that he could switch with ease from debonair leading man to playing the most evil characters imaginable. He was fearless in playing villains, not only here but in films such as SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948) and DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954).

The film also has an outstanding performance by Audrey Totter as Donna, a down-and-out woman Beal finds in a waterfront dive. He offers her a life of luxury in return for her help corrupting Foster. Donna does a smooth job, but she gradually realizes just who she's dealing with and becomes completely terrified. It's a nicely developed, layered performance which is quite different from her out-and-out bad girl of TENSION.

When I think of George Macready I think of the villains he's played, but here he plays a minister who may hold the key to freeing Joe from Nick's spell. The cast also includes Fred Clark, Henry O'Neill, Geraldine Wall, Darryl Hickman, King Donovan, Charles Evans, and Nestor Paiva. Bess Flowers fans should be on the lookout for her sitting in the front row when Mitchell's character delivers a speech.

ALIAS NICK BEAL was directed by John Farrow, who also directed Milland in THE BIG CLOCK (1948). It was shot in black and white by Lionel Lindon.

The script of this 93-minute film was by Jonathan Latimer, who wrote THE BIG CLOCK and also worked on the very atmospheric NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948) the year before. It's a well-constructed story which reaches a logical conclusion. My main quibble is a minor thing, in that it's said more than once that Joe is 48, and Thomas Mitchell was...not 48.

There's a good review of this film by Steve at Mystery File.

This film is not on DVD or even VHS, more's the pity. It's yet another Paramount film which needs to be freed by Universal for new audiences to enjoy.

Update: Here's Lindsay's take on the film at Lindsay's Movie Musings.

April 2021 Update: Great news! This film will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber in July 2021. Extras will include a commentary track by Eddie Muller.


Blogger DorianTB said...

Laura, I've been wanting to see ALIAS NICK BEAL (especially since I recent watched THE BIG CLOCK recently at TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED). You lucky girl, seeing it at the Noir City Film Festival! Here's hoping it's available on DVD, or will be!

2:59 PM  
Blogger Ruth @ The Counterfeit Writer said...

"Alias Nick Beal" is definitely one of my favorite films noir - what a treat to be able to see it on the big screen! I also hope it comes to DVD soon, if only so I can see Audrey Totter's surrealist-inspired apartment clearly. :)

5:15 PM  
Blogger mel said...

Alias Nick Beal is on YouTube:

8:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've wanted to see this film for a long time. It really ought to be on DVD.


12:32 AM  

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