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Alias Nick Beal
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by Jay Seaver

"Ray Milland is a devil."
3 stars

At one point in "Alias Nick Beal", a man actually says "I'd sell my soul", followed moments later by the entrance of the demonic title character; all that's missing is the thunderclap. Sure, there were sixty fewer years of general snarkiness and tired screenplays when the movie was released, but it's a good bet that moments like that had whiskers on them even back then.

The frustrated man in that example is Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell), an honest district attorney trying to put a gangster away for good; the man who walks through the door is Nicholas Beal (Ray Milland), who would seem to be to slick and prosperous to meet people in a dockside bar. That's where he does his business, though, not just to offer Foster his chance at some incriminating ledgers but to recruit Donna Allen (Audrey Totter), a lady of the night that he dresses up as an heiress. After all, this conviction wll make Foster the front-runner in the upcoming governor's race, and if Beal's going to have a man inside the governor's mansion, it can't hurt to have a woman inside Foster's campaign.

Ray Milland is billed first, being in the title role and all, but the movie is really about third-billed Mitchell's character (Totter is listed second). Sight-unseen, that probably says more about the relative popularity of the three main cast members at the time: Milland was a star, Totter a familiar-enough face who never quite broke through to the A-list, and Mitchell a reliable character actor. That about describes their performances, too. Milland steals what scenes aren't straight-up handed to him with his slick demeanor; there's an assured but impersonal sense of malice to Nick. He doesn't lose his temper, but occasionally sets it aside when a little intimidation may wind up useful. Audrey Totter was a professional bad girl, and she's got all the tricks down for Donna - a brassy sense of self-reliance, even when she's taking Nick's largesse; enjoying her taste of the good life but still letting her coarser nature peek through; and realizing that she may not be the greatest person in the world, but that she's working with a monster. And Thomas Mitchell doesn't make a mis-step as Foster; he keeps the saintly attorney grounded at the start and manages the descent into corruption quite believably.

None of those performances is really a problem, per se, but their prominence relative to each other and the way this movie is set up highlights something true in many cases, but especially here: The devil is actually superfluous in most "deal with the devil" stories, and with Nick Beal seldom-if-ever doing anything overtly supernatural, it's possible that there's a much more interesting story in Foster sinking into the muck without unconventional help. Despite the smaller stakes in the grand scheme of things, Nick's involvement with Donna potentially seems like a bigger deal. The end result is that the movie is structured around a main story whose protagonist is solid but slightly less than compelling, with a good supporting character in Donna underused and an entertaining title character who doesn't really get interesting until the last scene.

That's the one where the supernatural elements get their most interesting workout (they are often awkwardly used and half-dismissed), although director John Farrow and writer Jonathan Latimer (working from a story by Mindret Lord) do a good job of using it to build atmosphere at various points - Nick is threatening not because he can make things happen by snapping his fingers, but because he can seemingly be anywhere and know everything. It's a shame that Latimer's script splits itself a bit too evenly between being a supernatural thriller and a tale of corruption, because if they'd laid a stronger focus on one or the other, the end result might have been quite something. Farrow turns in a slick job in the director's chair, marshalling good work from the entire cast and crew to create a movie that often impresses despite the weak story.

Sometimes, a movie just has to decide what it's going to be and commit to it. Farrow and company do as fine a job as they can working both sides of the street, leading to a movie that is well-executed but never as gripping as it could be.

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originally posted: 06/19/11 14:45:11
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6/25/17 robert excellent 5 stars
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