NEWS FLASH!!!: Alias Nick Beal (1949) is finally available on a legitimate, non-bootleg Blu-ray. It’s from Kino Lorber, which has presumably worked something out with Universal. Universal owns the pre-1950 Paramount library, but it seems that unless a Paramount picture stars either the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields, there’s scant interest at Universal in issuing a DVD. That may be changing; maybe it takes someone like the gang at Kino Lorber to offer to do all the work (and pay a sufficient fee) to get Universal to shake loose. On the other hand, I found a suggestion that story-rights issues had kept Beal (and another 1949 Paramount, The Great Gatsby with Alan Ladd) off the market, but I wasn’t able to confirm or clarify that. Whatever the backstory, the main thing is we’ve got it now, finally, in North America; you can order it here at Kino Lorber or here at Amazon. (Be warned: The Amazon page reprints KL’s description, which garbles the plot. Best not to read either one; just click “Add to Cart” and take it from there.) Anyone within reach of Cinedrome must not hesitate, but order their copy of Alias Nick Beal forthwith. If that peremptory order is not enough, I’m republishing my 2011 post on this John Farrow/Jonathan Latimer masterpiece.
When I posted on Beal ten years ago, the picture had gone from running two or three times a year on local Late Late Shows in the 1970s to virtually vanishing from the face of the earth. The last legal showing of it I was aware of was on The Movie Channel in 1990 — which I fortunately had the foresight to record on VHS and later transfer to DVD. That disc was the source of the frame-caps I included. I may replace those illustrations when I get my new disc; we’ll see. For now, read on…
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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.
Alias Nick Beal is another “supernatural noir“, the subgenre I mentioned in my post on Night Has a Thousand Eyes. It may be the only other example. Of all the movies with supernatural plots, I can’t think of any but those two that dressed their stories so fully in the trappings of film noir. (If you know of any, please speak up; I’ll gladly kick myself for not having thought of them first.)
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 résumés — 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 warrant tomorrow. When he looks up, Beal is gone.
Milland won a well-deserved Oscar for his tour de force in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, but he’s 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, the tenacity of evil. 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.”
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When I wrote about Alias Nick Beal in 2011, it was buried deep in the Universal vault, available only in a gray-market transfer from Loving the Classics.com (whose customer service, I regret to say, is not what it used to be). In the intervening years it’s been poking up from time to time, like a hibernating bear checking out the spring weather — showings on Turner Classic Movies, DVD releases in Europe and Australia. But now our Mr. Beal has come home where he belongs, so hurry over to Kino Lorber or Amazon and grab your copy; as I said about Henry Hathaway’s Down to the Sea in Ships, this is one of the best movies you never heard of.
Now — if only somebody would bring out a Region 1 disc of Night Has a Thousand Eyes. That one’s available in Europe too. Why not here? How about it, Kino Lorber?