For the last four or five years, I’ve participated in #noirvember, that’s hashtag speak for film noirs in November. It is a fun time where a bunch of classic film nerds watch a bunch of film noirs and talk about them on social media. The first year I participated I really figured I could watch all the film noirs in a few weeks. I knew of all the big ones – The Big Sleep, The Third Man, Double Indemnity, etc. and figured there were maybe a dozen more or so that I didn’t know about.
I was wrong. Dead wrong. As wrong as the corpse in that icy blonde’s bathroom. There are tons of film noirs. Classic and not so much, good ones and bad ones, famous ones and ones that have been forgotten by everyone but the die-hard noir nerds. I’ve spent the last few years watching as many as I can and I keep finding more.
Of course, half the problem with identifying noirs (and half the fun some might say) is determining exactly what a noir is. There isn’t really a standard definition. They are filmed in black and white (except when they aren’t), take place in the big city (except when they don’t), involve a mysterious femme fatale (or not), and always, always involve crime (except all those times when they don’t). There is much debate of what is a noir and which films fit into the genre. Everybody’s list is different.
They aren’t even a strictly American genre (as we’ll see in a few days when I review a collection of British Noirs). Sometimes a noir isn’t really even a noir except it looks like one and well, that makes it a noir.
Take Alias Nick Beal for example (and hey, Kino Lorber is putting out a nice new Blu-ray of that film very soon, and I just happen to be reviewing it). Its story is straight-up Faustian. A good man sells his soul to the devil to gain prestige and power. There aren’t any of the classic noir tropes to be found anywhere in the story. But the filmmaking is as noir as they come.
Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell) is a tough district attorney with strong moral convictions and plenty of integrity. He’s worked hard to clean up his city, but he’s never been able to nab the kingpin Frankie Faulkner (Fred Clark). As the film begins, he thinks he’s got just the evidence to put him away. Like Elliott Ness nabbing Al Capone on tax evasion, Foster plans to finally get Faulkner through his crooked books. But before the evidence makes it to court, someone burns them, destroying the case.
In a fit of rage, Foster swears he’d give anything – even his immortal soul – if he could just get Faulkner off the streets. Just then the phone rings. On the other end a man says he has evidence that will put Faulkner behind bars. He’d like a meeting at a sleazy little bar down by the docks. Literally out from shadows and fog comes Nick Beal (Ray Milland) – at least that’s what people call him around here. He leads Foster to a back room where he produces a copy of Faulkner’s crooked books. Foster can have them and with it a conviction, but it comes with a price. No, not Foster’s eternal soul, that deal will come later, but just a slice of his integrity. For to take the books is to steal them as Foster has no warrant to enter the building. No one else will know, and he’ll get the conviction, but it will weigh on his conscience.
He takes the books and gets the conviction. Foster is the toast of the town. The boys all love him and as the current governor is retiring they figure Foster is the man to take his place. Nick Beal likes the idea too. So much in fact that he offers Foster a lot of money to help, no questions asked of course. But Foster’s wife (Geraldine Wall) doesn’t like this Beal character and advises Foster to not take the money, or have anything to do with Nick Beal. Foster always listens to his wife (at least he does in the beginning) and so he refuses the money or any help from Beal.
But politics is hard; compromises must be made. If you have to bend a little, or get into bed with less than reputable characters…well, that’s the price of business. Besides you can do more good once you are in office and that makes the cost of getting elected worth it. At least that’s what Foster keeps telling himself.
Nick Beal has more ways to get at a man than one. He finds Donna Allen (Audrey Totter) at the end of her rope. She’s at that run-down bar on the docks without any hope. Even there, she gets tossed out on the street. Nick Beal picks her up, cleans her up, and sets her up in a nice apartment. He gets her a job in Foster’s campaign. She’s good at it and he falls for her, and well, you can see where this is going.
I don’t know the actual Faust story well, just the myriad of imitators and adaptations, so I don’t know if this is in the original or not, but I really liked how Nick Beal is subtle in this one. He doesn’t step into the scene promising Foster everything he wants in exchange for his soul. He first offers the books and asks for nothing in return, save for maybe a little compromising of his morals. He offers other things for free but never pushes. He places things in his path and watches as he loses himself a little at a time. When there finally is a contract it isn’t for his soul, but simply a promise that Foster will come with him to an island and work if he doesn’t keep up his end of the bargain (Nick Beal wants a slight position in his cabinet if Foster becomes governor.).
The rest of the film isn’t quite so subtle. It is pretty obvious from the moment Nick Beal enters the scene (through those shadows and fog) that he is the devil, or at least one of his minions. Foster has a religious friend who perpetually warns Foster away from making any bargains. Early on, he asks Beal to read a passage from the Bible and he immediately flees the scene. Etc., and so on. But it works on an allegorical level if not a practical one.
It’s the filmmaking that really makes this film into something special. Ray Milland is fantastic as Nick Beal. He plays him completely toned down. This isn’t the charming, smirking devil we see in so many other stories. Milland plays his cards close to the chest. He’s Machiavelli plotting three moves ahead, waiting patiently to see Foster make the choices he knows he’ll make.
Director John Farrow films it like a classic noir. In the Blu-ray extras, it is noted that he spend more time getting the fog to look exactly perfect than he did choosing his cast. The exteriors are cast in deep shadows and the fog is used perfectly to conceal characters until they reveal them at exactly the right moment.
The interiors are perfectly set and displayed. Donna’s apartment is classy and modern. There are two Dali-esque murals painted on her walls. In the audio commentary, Eddie Muller notes how Hollywood at that time was very conservative and those very modern, progressive murals were all about indicating that was the flat of the devil. I love little details like that. Alias Nick Beal is full of them.
Extras for this disk include the aforementioned, excellent commentary from Eddie Muller and some theatrical trailers.
Alias Nick Beal will be released on July 13, 2021.