The Paramount mountain dissolves to a slate-colored sky pouring a torrential, whistling rain, riven by claws of lightning and rumbling thunder. There’s a crashing fanfare from composer Franz Waxman that sounds magisterial, commanding and insinuating all at once, then descends into a tortured, frantic violin scherzo. Next the names of the three above-the-title stars — Ray Milland, Audrey Totter, Thomas Mitchell — then the title itself. Alias Nick Beal is under way.
Beal came hot on the heels of Night Has a
Thousand Eyes for director John Farrow,
writer Jonathan Latimer and producer Endre
Bohem — so close, in fact (the pictures
were released less than five months apart),
that I have to believe Beal was being prepared
while Night was shooting, and being shot while
Night was being readied for release. Without
access to Paramount’s detailed records I can’t
confirm that, but the two movies are simply
too close a match, variations on a theme of
frail little humans trapped in a web of which
they can see only the dark and shadowy outline.
The difference between them — the variation —
is this: Night Has a Thousand Eyes speaks of
sinister and mysterious forces beyond our
understanding; in Alias Nick Beal the sinister
mystery is entirely comprehensible, and it has
a name — most of us were raised on childhood
tales of it — but as adults, our belief in our own
sophistication blinds us, makes us willfully
refuse to see it until it’s too late.
Like many newspapermen accustomed to deadlines, Latimer worked well in Hollywood, and he got some assignments that have aged gracefully among movie lovers: the 1942 remake of The Glass Key with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake; They Won’t Believe Me (’47) with Susan Hayward, Robert Young and Jane Greer; and The Big Clock (’48) with Ray Milland and Charles Laughton. The Big Clock was directed by John Farrow, and Latimer reunited with him for Night Has a Thousand Eyes — then, in ’49, with both Farrow and Milland for Alias Nick Beal. In fact, Latimer worked with Farrow more than with any other director (and Farrow more with him than with any other writer), ten pictures in nine years, and the titles would be among the best on both men’s resumes — there were also Plunder of the Sun, Botany Bay and Back from Eternity.
Like Lord, Latimer also got into television, but at the other end of the food chain, writing for important network shows: Hong Kong, Checkmate, Markham (Ray Milland’s one-season half-hour crime series), and a whopping 31 episodes for the original Perry Mason — that last gig was as high as a writer could go in early-’60s TV. Latimer’s last credit was another top-of-the-heap assignment: a 1972 episode of Columbo guest-starring his old friend Milland.
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.
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.”).
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 he 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.
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.”