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July 06, 2021

Alias Nick Beal

alias nick beal.jpg

John Farrow - 1949
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

A very curious moment occurs near the beginning of Alias Nick Beal. The district attorney, a pastor, the D.A.'s wife and a teen boy are meeting in the glass walled office of a recreation center for teenage boys. A much younger boy appears with a message for the district attorney. The boy disappears as suddenly as he appears, having neither entered or exited through the only visible door. Throughout the film, Nick Beal shows himself to be able to appear and disappear at will. There are no special effects involved, but simply placement of the character within the view of the camera. What makes the scene with the messenger boy unusual is that his appearance and disappearence are not remarked upon as they are with Nick Beal. This may be either a narrative sleight of hand, or it could be an expression of how children are invisible to adults unless they make themselves noticed. This is in keeping with the youth center which serves as a gathering place for boys considered potential juvenile delinquents.

Alias Nick Beal is not a film noir in the traditional sense, though it does share some of the elements. There is the protagonist, Joseph Foster, the district attorney who finds himself shedding his idealism in exchange for the political clout of being a governor. Donna Allen, who first appears as a hard-drinking floozie is transformed into a high society dame after meeting Nick Beal. Her restrained relationship with Foster keeps her from being the true femme fatale. While the identity of Beal is mildly ambiguous, Farrow and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer avoid any direct explanation. Only at the end is there a great suggestion of the supernatural.

A film noir visual trope used several times involves exterior scenes in the fog. Beal is introduced as an emerging silhouette, black in a cloud of grey. Several scenes take place in a bar that seems perpetually enveloped in fog. The remoteness of the bar, more of a dead end dive, is suggested by its name, China Coast. The place appears to be the hangout for down on their heels sailors or those disconnected from the mainstream society of the unnamed town where the film takes place. The interior of the bar is crooked, emphasizing a lack of balance. A sense of disconnection is also suggested in the interior of Donna Allen's ritzy apartment. Conspicuously visible is a surrealistic mural, resembling something by Dali, feature a detached leg with a hand in place of feet. There is a sense of isolation with Foster and Allen seen alone in very large rooms. Farrow also plays with that sense of space in two two-shots with Beal setting terms with Foster and Allen respectively, by placing Beal in the foreground with the significantly smaller Foster and Allen visible in the back of the room.

Thomas Mitchell was an old looking 57 year old playing a man who is stated to be 48. As Foster, he still suggests the vigor of a younger man, but one who has just enough self-awareness that his attraction to Donna Allen is foolish. Dressed to the nines, Audrey Totter looks out of place. One of the great perpetual bad girls, Totter's introduction with her shabbily dressed, grabbing drinks in a bar and picking fights with other ladies of the night offers a bit of boisterous humor. As Nicholas Beal, mysterious businessman, Ray Milland is mostly dead pan, his biggest smile near the end when Beal believes he totally has Foster in his pocket. Beal not only knows his power but also knows that like some gangsters, he does not have to shout or be physically imposing in order to get his way.

Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation provides the commentary track. Part of the discussion is how Alias Nick Beal was a more personal project for John Farrow, given Farrow's practice as a devout Catholic as well as his writings of Catholic history. Farrow reportedly chose to film this adaptation of a story by Mindret Lord over the more prestigious assignment as Alan Ladd's first choice to direct The Great Gatsby. Part of the commentary covers the frequent collaborations between Farrow and Latimer, but only briefly suggests the irreverent sense of humor often found in those films. Their most famous film together is the initial collaboration, The Big Clock, also starring Milland. I would also recommend Plunder of the Sun with Glenn Ford as the wise-cracking adventurer anticipating Indian Jones by almost thirty years. Muller claims to be retired from doing home video commentaries, but I hope takes on another assignment.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 6, 2021 07:59 AM