is arguably the best thing Jonathan Latimer ever wrote, and it’s certainly the absolute pinnacle of Mindret Lord’s rather lackluster career. It takes place in an unnamed big city, one that closely resembles Lord and Latimer’s native Chicago: corrupt, crime-ridden, and ruled by oily political boss Frankie Faulkner (Fred Clark), so secure and arrogant that he doesn’t even bother to conceal his scheming or veil his threats.
However, Faulkner may have met his match in district attorney Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell), a paragon of legal rectitude and civic virtue — in his spare time he helps his friend Rev. Garfield (George Macready) manage an after-school recreation program for boys at risk of delinquency — who is prosecuting Faulkner’s underling Hanson on corruption and racketeering charges, hoping to bring down Faulkner’s organization brick by brick. But Faulkner isn’t that easily dismantled; through crocodile tears he informs the prosecutor that Hanson’s books, which Foster had subpoenaed only that morning, were destroyed in a fire the night before. Foster is stymied, checkmated; he had been careful to make it appear that he wouldn’t seek the books, then had sprung his subpoena at the last moment, just to forestall something like this. But Faulkner was a step ahead of him. Foster’s got to nail Hanson if he wants to clean up the city, and there’s nothing he won’t do to get him.
That’s when Foster receives a cryptic summons to a dingy dive down by the waterfront: “If you want to nail Hanson, drop around the China Coast at eight tonight.” The man he meets that night (Ray Milland) is clean-shaven and dapper, impeccably groomed and dressed, cutting a figure entirely at odds with the sqalid little tavern where Foster finds him. His card reads simply: “Nicholas Beal, Agent”. “Agent for what?” asks Foster. Beal grins slightly. “That depends. Possibly for you.”
Beal takes Foster to a nearby building, a rundown, darkened cannery where he presents Foster with the evidence he had sought that very morning — Hanson’s books, saved from the flames after all. Foster hesitates. He can’t take them, he says; he has no warrant. I thought you wanted Hanson, Beal says; here’s your chance. Foster continues to peruse the books. He doesn’t speak but we can imagine his thoughts: Here they are, can I take the chance on losing them again? I can always get a warrent tomorrow. When he looks up, Beal is gone.
Foster decides. He tucks the books under his arm, puts out the light, and makes his way out of the cannery by the beam of a flashlight Beal left behind. In the pitch dark of the outer room, his light startles a rat on a shelf. The rat sqeaks plaintively and stares at Foster, eye to eye. We can almost read the rat’s mind, as clearly as if he were speaking: Welcome to my world.
Foster gets his conviction and becomes a hero in the press. He’s still vaguely troubled about his hocus-pocus with the warrant, but shrugs it off. Still, Beal isn’t finished with him. No sooner do representatives of the state’s Independent Party arrive, asking if Foster will allow his name to be placed in nomination for governor, than Beal shows up in his study to collect for services already rendered. But what seems like a sly piece of blackmail takes an odd turn when Beal offers to contribute to his political campaign; he already knows about the overtures from the Independent Party (“I hear things.”).
That night, on the foggy boardwalk outside the China Coast, Beal takes the next step in whatever scheme he has afoot. A down-and-out slattern (Audrey Totter) gives him a come-on, but is taken aback when he knows her name, Donna Allen. He knows her history, too: a couple of years of college, ambitions to be an actress, then seduced and abandoned by an actor she called “Boysey” — who turned out to be married. They fought, he fell down a flight of stairs. “An accident, they said.” How do you know about Boysey, she asks; you a friend of his? “I met him once.”
Beal leads her to an expensive penthouse apartment, smart and stylish but somehow foreboding and unsettling, with Daliesque frescoes painted on the walls. It’s hers, he says, along with a wardrobe of silks and sables, diamonds and sapphires. She tries to bolt, but the delivery boy is at the door, and everything is just too tempting — and it all has her name on it. “What do I gotta do, murder?” “Just the opposite,” says Beal, “reform work. In a boys’ club.”
In the next scene Donna has made herself indispensible, organizing the boys’ club office and writing large checks for donations — and coyly flirting with Foster. It’s a scene she’s played often since her days with Boysey, but usually only for cheap drinks, and never with such lavish sets and costumes. Men are all alike, right? Boysey was married and here’s another one; this time she’s wised up, and if Beal wants her to tickle his vanity she’ll play along. Why should she care?
As time goes on Donna will slowly realize that neither Foster nor Beal is the kind of man she thought he was. Neither she nor Foster can see what we see: that Beal is slowly, carefully drawing his net around them both. Every step, beginning with Foster’s compromise on the warrant and Donna’s following Beal from the waterfront to that apartment, calls for just a slight stretch of the conscience, a tiny little disregard of misgivings, moving them off true center by degrees they simply don’t notice.
We see other things the characters don’t. Beal’s plans involve conspiracy, duplicity, bribery, double-dealing, seduction and murder. Things come to a head as Beal prepares to spring his trap. He shows up at Donna’s apartment, telling her that Foster is on his way after a fight with his wife. Beal tells her how the conversation will go — what she’s to say, what Foster will answer, what she’s to say to that. She sneers at the melodrama; who would ever spout those cornball lines? Never mind, he says, just remember your part.
When Foster arrives their talk runs more or less as Beal said it would. Then, hearing her cue and hardly knowing what to expect, Donna segues into the words Beal gave her — and so does Foster. With growing horror, she tries to stop things, and her words take on a different, more frightening meaning — but they’re still Beal’s words! Try as she might, she can’t not say what Beal told her to. It’s a brilliantly written scene, and brilliantly played by Audrey Totter, the finest five minutes in her career.
Donna Allen becomes the first to sense the truth: Nicholas Beal isn’t just some slimy, amoral political operative. He is, in literal fact, the Devil Himself.
I’m not spoiling anything here; this isn’t a please-don’t-reveal-the-ending mystery. We’ve tipped to this long before Foster or Donna or Rev. Garfield. Beal knows things before they happen. He can’t stand to be touched. He refuses to read from the Bible, or even touch it. He cold-shoulders Rev. Garfield, who can’t quite place where he’s seen Beal’s face before. (“Did anyone ever paint your portrait?” “Yes, Rembrandt in 1655.”) The beauty of Alias Nick Beal isn’t that Beal’s character is revealed to us in a sudden, shocking whoa-didn’t-see-that-coming revelation. It’s that we can easily believe that the other characters can’t see him for what he is. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, they see but they do not observe. We’re sitting watching a movie, but they’re living their lives; after all, this is the 20th century, and things like that just don’t happen, do they? But as Rev. Garfield finally says, “Maybe the Devil knows it’s the 20th century too, Joseph.”
Foster passes control of his soul to Beal by increments, one step at a time. The first step is both the smallest and the biggest, because once he’s started it gets harder to turn back, easier to go on, until finally he stands bewildered, unable to recognize himself. How did I get here?, he wonders. In a moment of self-knowledge, he realizes: “It’s not Beal, it’s me.”
Naturally, the mainspring of Alias Nick Beal must be Ray Milland’s performance, and he’s superb. His Beal is smooth, quiet, confident, glib. Nothing ruffles him. But don’t try to touch him. “I don’t like to be touched.” He says it simply, almost apologetic, but his meaning is clear: you won’t like what happens when you do something Nick Beal doesn’t like. When Beal once flares in anger, it’s over in an instant and his calm demeanor returns, but the moment is unnerving; though his eyes are angry slits in that moment, we can almost see the fires of Hell banked behind them.
Milland won a well-deserved Oscar for his tour de force in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, but I’m not sure he isn’t even better here — more subdued, certainly, his face often registering only the slightest movement of an eyebrow, a cheek muscle, the corner of his mouth. He’s the master puppeteer with no wasted motion, supremely in control, confident that his puppets will never feel the strings. Milland worked four times with director Farrow (not incidentally, all but one of them written by Jonathan Latimer), and they were an excellent match, never more so than here.
Alias Nick Beal is superbly directed, too, by the underrated Farrow, whose name is more familiar now thanks to his daughter Mia’s career than to his own. He was Australian-born in 1904, naturalized American in 1947, twice Oscar-nominated (1942 for directing Wake Island; 1956 for co-writing Around the World in 80 Days, which he won). He was also something of a polymath — author of plays, novels, short stories, a Tahitian-English dictionary and biographies of Thomas More and Father Damien. Besides the Oscar, he was also awarded an honorary Commander of the British Empire (by Queen Elizabeth II) and a Knighthood of the Grand Cross of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre (by Pope Pius XI). In Nick Beal his hand is firm but not heavy, and he doesn’t overplay it. Scenes move sinuously from one to the next (the black fog of the waterfront becomes the back of Foster’s suit as he steps away from the camera in his study), and the story moves with the slithery grace of a serpent.
Notice too the performances of minor characters — Donna’s maid, a railroad depot bartender, the grizzled denizens of the China Coast. Farrow is a director who tends to the details. After all, isn’t that where the Devil is?
The phrase “banality of evil” was years in the future when Alias Nick Beal came out, but the theme is on display here. The banality of evil, but also its seductiveness, and the good intentions that pave the road to Hell. Above all, its persistence. You may vanquish the Devil, but he won’t give up; he’ll be back, and he’s patient. Beal tells us as much when he and Foster overhear a sidewalk Salvation Army convert’s testimony: “Glory be! I’ve wrestled the Devil and thrown him. I’ve pinned his shoulders to the mat…” Beal turns ironically to Foster. “I wonder if he knows it’s two falls out of three.”