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of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lost & Found: Alias Nick Beal

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.

The screenplay for Alias Nick Beal was by Jonathan Latimer, from an original story by Mindret Lord. Lord's name isn't a familiar one even to movie-trivia buffs; he is sometimes misidentified as "Mildred". In fact, he was born Mindred Loeb in Chicago in 1903. His early years haven't left much trace in the permanent record, but by the late 1920s he was an aspiring writer and had embarked on a long affair with the opera singer Marguerite Namara, 15 years his senior.

In 1934 Lord met an old flame of Namara's, tenor Hardesty Johnson, and his wife Isabel, daughter of Hamlin Garland, a popular early-20th century writer whose fame would pretty much die with him in 1940. Isabel had ambitions to be a writer like her father, so she and Lord had something in common; by this time he had begun selling stories to the pulps, detective fiction to magazines like Black Mask and tales of horror and the supernatural to Weird Tales and the like ("pot boiling" he called it), and he mentored Isabel on her own writing. They began an affair that eventually finished off his liaison with Marguerite and her marriage to Hardesty. Lord and Isabel were married on December 21, 1936.

Mindret and Isabel collaborated (as "Garland Lord") on several mystery novels while he continued to boil pots for the pulps; he never really broke into the "slicks", as they were called, though he did eventually get four short-short stories (fictional anecdotes, really) into The New Yorker in 1942 and '43. By then he had contributed some sketches to New Faces of 1936 on Broadway, done some script doctoring for a wealthy Park Avenue wannabe-playwright, and picked up work writing for sundry radio series.

This got him a foothold in Hollywood (sort of), writing for independent producer W. Lee Wilder (Billy's younger, far less talented brother), who released his movies through Poverty Row's Republic Pictures. Lord began drinking heavily, his marriage fell apart, he had an affair -- though in what order, and which caused what, is anybody's guess. In 1948 and '49 he sold two stories to Paramount which became The Sainted Sisters and Nick Beal respectively. He wrote for a few second-string syndicated series in the early years of television, one last C-picture for Wilder, and finally, the script for The Virgin Queen (1955) with Bette Davis as Elizabeth I and Richard Todd as Sir Walter Raleigh. Near the end of that year, Lord committed suicide at 52. It's not hard to imagine why -- his writing career had never really gone anywhere, and he died one day after what would have been his wedding anniversary -- but if anybody knows the real reason, or even how he did it, they didn't leave the information lying around where I could find it.

Jonathan Latimer, who turned Lord's story for Beal
into a screenplay, was also born in Chicago and wrote
for the detective pulps in the '30s, but he was another
case entirely -- a more successful career, a longer life,
and death from natural causes at 76 in 1983. Latimer
started out as a crime reporter for the Chicago Herald
Examiner -- and later for the Tribune -- where he
became personally acquainted with Al Capone,
Bugs Moran, and other Chicago underworld
celebrities. In the mid-'30s he turned to fiction
with a series of hardboiled, semi-comic
mysteries featuring private eye Bill Crane.

Latimer branched out into non-crime fiction and non-series mysteries. One of the latter, Solomon's Vineyard (1941) was so violent and sexy it came out only in England; it wasn't published in the U.S. until 1950 (as The Fifth Grave), and then it was heavily expurgated (Latimer's original text finally appeared in the States in 1982). It's a good solid mystery that doesn't waste a word, but it is violent, with at least a dozen killings (only about half of them offstage), and a surprising amount of hot and kinky sex, especially for 1941. It also has one of the greatest I-dare-you-to-stop-reading opening lines in the history of pulp fiction: "From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she'd be good in bed."

At a time when The Thin Man had spearheaded a vogue for comedy/mysteries, Universal bought three of Latimer's Bill Crane books for a short-lived series starring Preston Foster: The Westland Case (from Headed for a Hearse) in 1937 and two more the following year, The Lady in the Morgue and The Last Warning (from The Dead Don't Care). Those scripts were written by others, but in 1940 Latimer tried his own hand at screenwriting, first contributing the story for Phantom Raiders (with Walter Pidgeon as detective Nick Carter), then in 1941 co-writing the script for Topper Returns.

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.

Alias Nick Beal 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 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.

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."


DorianTB said...

Jim, I've long been a fan of both Jonathan Latimer and Ray Milland, not to mention Audrey Totter and John Farrow. Need I say I was wowed by your rich, compelling review of ALIAS NICK BEAL and the history behind it? Thanks to you, I'm going to keep my eyes peeled for ALIAS NICK BEAL on TCM and everywhere else I can think of!

Jim Lane said...

Dorian, Nick Beal (like Night Has a Thousand Eyes) is one of those pre-'50 Paramounts now in the Universal library. Universal's recent agreement with TCM gives hope that both (among others) may show up on Turner eventually. The pics on my post are frame-caps from a copy I taped when Beal appeared on The Movie Channel in 1990 (which I believe was the last time it appeared in public).

In the meantime, Alias Nick Beal is available herefrom Loving the Classics. I think you'll love it.

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