Halloween Havoc!: ALIAS NICK BEAL (Paramount 1949)

The worlds of supernatural horror and film noir collided to great effect in ALIAS NICK BEAL, John Farrow’s 1949 updated take on the Faust legend. The film wasn’t seen for decades due to legal complications, but last August the good folks at TCM broadcast it for the first time. I have been wanting to see this one for years, and I wasn’t disappointed! It’s loaded with dark atmosphere, a taut screenplay by hardboiled writer/noir vet Jonathan Latimer , and a cast of pros led by a ‘devilish’ turn from Ray Milland as Nick Beal.

The Faust character this time around is Joseph Foster, played by veteran Thomas Mitchell . Foster is an honest, crusading DA with political ambitions. When he says aloud he’d “give my soul” to convict racketeer Hanson, Foster receives a message to meet a man who claims he can help. Summoned to a seedy tavern on the fog-shrouded waterfront, he meets the dapper Nick Beal, who describes Foster as an “incorruptible enemy of the legions of evil”, with just a hint of disdain. Beal leads the DA to Hanson’s hidden ledger, containing proof of the gangster’s various crimes. While Foster looks it over, Beal mysteriously vanishes into the night.

Soon Foster’s party bosses offer him the governorship, and up pops Beal again. Foster’s wife warns him to stay away from the stranger, so Beal recruits a down-on-her-luck bar girl named Donna Allen to do his bidding. The Reverend Dr. Garfield, an ally of Foster’s, feels he’s seen Nick somewhere before, but can’t quite place him (Garfield: “Did anyone ever paint your portrait?” Beal: “Yes, Rembrandt in 1665”). Beal’s machinations, including a bargain with corrupt political boss Faulkner, put Foster in the governor’s chair, causing the party to disown the formerly incorruptible DA, accusing him of “misuse of unauthorized campaign funds”. Beal demands the office of Keeper of the State Seal, Faulkner demands his cronies get choice appointments, and the beleaguered Foster confesses all in his inauguration speech, resigning from the post. Politically and financially ruined, his marriage in a shambles, Foster is at his lowest ebb when Beal decides to cash in on their bargain, accompanying him to “los isla de las almos perditas”… Spanish for the island of lost souls!! Can Joe Foster be saved??

Ray Milland was one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, moving from romantic leading man to two-fisted hero to despicable villain with the greatest of ease. His Nick Beal is suave and sophisticated, cunning and cruel, and his sinister malevolence permeates every scene. He scares the hell out of Donna, manipulating a word-for-word dialog between her and Foster before it even happens. His whistling though the chiaroscuro shadows and fog bound wharf of DP Lionel Linden’s cinematography is eerie to behold, and Milland makes for one hell of an emissary of evil.

Thomas Mitchell as Foster is the film’s main focus, and the actor was a master of eliciting sympathy from an audience, as he proved time and again in classic movies from STAGECOACH  to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. His wife is played by Geraldine Wall, usually relegated to uncredited or bit parts, and she shows she could’ve done so much more if given half a chance. George Macready , of all people, plays the good Rev. Garfield, who stumbles on to the truth about Beal. This is probably my favorite performance by actress Audrey Totter , who plays the prostitute Donna, trapped in Beal’s dark web. Her early scenes as the hardcore hooker stand in sharp contrast to what happens when Beal glams her up and sics her on Foster, and her fear of the demonic Beal is palpable. Totter, one of noir’s best bad girls, really gets to shine in this part!

A plethora of Familiar Faces parade across the screen on the sides of both good and evil. Among them you’ll recognize Henry O’Neill as Judge Hobson, Fred Clark as the crooked boss Faulkner, Daryl Hickman as a teen involved with Foster’s Boys Club, and Danny Borzage, King Donovan , the ubiquitous Bess Flowers , Maxine Gates, Theresa Harris , Percy Helton, Nestor Paiva, Tim Ryan, Douglas Spencer, and Phil Van Zandt. ALIAS NICK BEAL works on so many levels, as fantasy, as film noir, as a political expose’, and as dark horror, and reminded me so much of the works of Val Lewton. With that excellent, powerhouse cast and timeless story, it’s a classic that will fit well into your Halloween viewing season, but can be enjoyed any time of year.

Strange Bedfellows: THE GLASS KEY (Paramount 1942)

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Anyone who watches television, reads a newspaper, or surfs the Internet today knows the axiom “Politics is a dirty business” is dead on point. The mudslinging and brickbats are being tossed at record rates, and it just keeps escalating. Here at Cracked Rear Viewer, we’re just plain tired of all the nonsense. Ah, for the old days, when politics was much more genteel and civil, right? Wrong! Politics has always been a dirty business, proving another old adage, “There’s nothing new under the sun”. Case in point: the 1942 film THE GLASS KEY.

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The story’s based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, and was filmed once before in 1935 with George Raft, Edward Arnold, and Claire Dodd. In this version, Paramount chose to star their red-hot team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, fresh off their hit THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Brian Donlevy takes the Arnold role as Paul Madvig, a shady political boss who came up from the streets to become a powerful kingmaker. Madvig throws his support to reform candidate Ralph Henry, mainly because he’s got the hots for Henry’s daughter Janet. Madvig’s second-in-command Ed Beaumont doesn’t trust her, as she’s been making the goo-goo eyes at him.

Henry’s son Taylor is a young wastrel with a gambling habit who’s in deep to gangster Nick Varna. Varna’s backing another candidate, and he and Madvig are at odds (at one point Madvig calls him “a pop-eyed spaghetti bender”). Taylor’s been dating Madvig’s sister Opal, and Ed warns her to steer clear of him. Soon Taylor’s found murdered, and Madvig’s the #1 suspect. The local newspaper (in Varna’s pocket) is splattering Madvig’s name all across the headlines (Aside: I love it when the newsboy screams, “Extry! Extry! Read all about it!”).

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Soon Janet asks for Ed’s help in solving her brother’s murder. Varna sends for Ed and offers him a stake in his gambling joint in exchange for dirt on Madvig. He tells Ed he’s got a sworn affidavit from an eyewitness, but Ed turns the gangster down flat, causing Varna to sic his brutal henchman Jeff on him. Ed’s locked in a room as Jeff continuously beats the shit out of him, trying to “persuade” him. Ed escapes by setting fire to a mattress and lands in the hospital.

Madvig and Janet visit Ed there, and reveal they’re now engaged, though Janet’s still hot for Ed. When he leaves the hospital, Ed goes to the Pine Lake home of publisher Matthews, finding Varna and his hoods there as well. Ed figures it all out, and the publisher commits suicide, leaving a note behind. Ed grabs the note and puts the kibosh on the story. The so-called “witness” is gunned down by Varna’s men, then Madvig astounds Ed by telling him he really did kill Taylor! Madvig’s indicted, and Ed tracks Jeff down at a seedy bar. The hulking brute is drunk, and plans on more fun and games with Ed. Varna arrives, Jeff spills the beans that he killed the witness, Varna pulls a gun, Jeff strangles him, and the real murderer is finally revealed (no, I won’t tell you who it is!). Ed and Janet leave for a new life in New York, with Madvig’s blessings.

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The dense story, a Hammett trademark, is adapted well by screenwriter Joanthan Latimer, no slouch himself in the hardboiled department. Latimer covered the Chicago crime beat during the heyday of Al Capone, then began writing novels featuring tough PI William Crane, three of which were filmed as part of Universal’s “Crime Club” series. Latimer also wrote the scripts for the noir’s NOCTURNE, THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME , and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, and over thirty episodes of the TV classic PERRY MASON.

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Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake had an onscreen electricity between them, a red-hot sexual chemistry that wasn’t topped until Bogie & Bacall. Of the seven films they appeared in together, three (THIS GUN FOR HIRE, THE GLASS KEY, THE BLUE DAHLIA) are bona-fide film noir classics. Ladd, who’d kicked around Hollywood for years, became a major star in films like SHANE and THE GREAT GATSBY. Veronica Lake, whose “peek-a-boo” hairstyle became a 40’s fad, wasn’t so lucky. A troubled soul diagnosed with schizophrenia, Lake turned to alcohol for relief, and by the early 60’s was working as a bartender in New York City. Her final film was the Grade-Z FLESH FEAST, in which she played a Nazi mad scientist. The beautiful Miss Lake died from complications of cirrhosis in 1973.

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Always reliable Brian Donlevy is at his sleazy best as Madvig. I like Donlevy much more when he plays villainous roles, and though Madvig’s not exactly a villain here, he definitely is a political slimeball. Joseph Calleia (Varna) was one of Hollywood’s great gangster types; he’s got a face made for wanted posters! The sadistic Jeff is brutish William Bendix  , and he’s one scary dude. Jeff is supposedly homosexual, but I see him more as a sadistic animal who gets off on inflicting pain no matter who it is. It’s a good performance any way you look at it, and a far cry from Bendix’s later success as a likeable lug on early TV’s THE LIFE OF RILEY. Bonita Granville (Opal, also called ‘Snip’) was just graduating from juvenile leads (as in the popular Nancy Drew films) to more mature roles. The doomed Taylor is Richard Denning, years before his days as a sci-fi hero (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE BLACK SCORPION ). Some other Familiar Faces of note here are Donald McBride (as the dishonest DA), Frances Gifford (a lovely sight to behold!), Moroni Olsen, Dane Clark, Billy Benedict, and Three Stooges nemesis Vernon Dent in a small role as a bartender.

Director Stuart Heisler graduated from the editing room, and does a great job handling the film. Would that I could say more about him, but he was mainly relegated to undistinguished ‘B’ pictures with a few exceptions (ALONG CAME JONES, SMASH-UP THE STORY OF A WOMAN) before ending his career in television. Given some bigger productions and we could be talking about Heisler as a major director, but it just wasn’t to be. That’s a shame, because THE GLASS KEY is a fine example of noir filmmaking, and a film everyone should see during this crazy political season. There’s just as much shady shit going on here as there is today on both sides of the aisle. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Karma’s a Bitch: THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME (RKO 1947)

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1947 was a peak year for film noir. There was BRUTE FORCE BORN TO KILL , DARK PASSAGE, KISS OF DEATH, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, OUT OF THE PAST, and NIGHTMARE ALLEY , to name but a few. THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME doesn’t get the notoriety of those I just mentioned, but it can hold its own with them all. This unheralded dark gem from the RKO noir factory boasts an outstanding cast, and a taut, twisted screenplay from hardboiled pulp writer Jonathan Latimer.

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Larry Ballantine’s on trial for the murder of his wife and his girlfriend. Larry’s a real cad, a lying and cheating weasel. He takes the stand and tells his side of the story, as the film goes into flashback to recount the sordid details. Larry’s stepping out on rich wife Greta with co-worker Janice, who gives him an ultimatum. She’s transferring to Montreal, and Larry is to leave his wife and go with her. Greta finds out, and pulls some strings…purse strings, that is. She buys a home in Palm Springs and a brokerage firm partnership there for her husband. The weak-willed, dead broke Larry follows the money, leaving Janice to Canada.

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Trenton & Ballantine comes with many perks, foremost among them Verna. The sexy, golddigging dame sets her cap for Larry, and the louse can’t resist her, though he doesn’t try very hard. The two engage in a hot’n’heavy affair until Janice comes to town and bumps into them. Jealous Janice rats her ex-playmate out to Greta, and wifey puts her foot down hard. She sells Larry’s interest in the firm and buys a ranch out by the lake, demanding Larry choose to be with her or Verna. Since he’s nothing without Greta’s dough, the spineless worm moves out to the isolated country, without even a phone to tempt him.

Greta thinks she’s finally got him by the gonads now, but Larry’s lust knows no bounds. Seizing on an opportunity to go to L.A. and meet with an architect, Larry desperately calls Verna at his first chance. He hatches a scheme to bilk their joint checking account of $25,000 and run off with Verna to Reno, where he can get a quickie divorce and marry her. Things turn ugly when they’re involved in an accident on the highway to Reno, as a truck blows a tire and smashes into them, injuring Larry and killing Verna. But at the hospital, Larry discovers the cops think the burned, unidentifiable corpse is Greta, and Larry begins to get ideas about ridding himself of his marriage for good.

The plot takes some twists and turns from here, and I won’t spoil things for those of you who haven’t seen this film. The cast is ably directed by Irving Pichel, as unheralded these days as the film itself. Pichel was an actor and director known to horror genre fans as the servant of DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936) and co-director of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) and SHE (1935). He also performed in the spicy Pre-Codes THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE and I’M NO ANGEL (with Mae West), and played Fagin in the 1933 version of OLIVER TWIST, and was narrator of two John Ford classics, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. His directing credits include the anti-Nazi films THE MAN I MARRIED, THE PIED PIPER, and O.S.S., the fantasy-comedies MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID and THE GREAT RUPERT, the early sci-fi entry DESTINATION MOON, and the excellent low-budget noir QUICKSAND (with Mickey Rooney and Peter Lorre). Pichel made the Randolph Scott Western SANTA FE before falling victim to the Hollywood blacklist, forcing him to move to Europe and ply his trade. After helming two religious pictures, MARTIN LUTHER and DAY OF TRIUMPH, Irving Pichel died in 1954. Many of the films he worked on were nominated for Academy Awards in various categories, and his career deserves a second look.

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All-American good guy Robert Young plays the rotten egg Larry, and he’s perfect in the part. Young’s long film career was winding down, and he was stretching his acting muscles at this juncture. A new career in television was just on the horizon, as he starred in not one but two long-running hits: the family comedy FATHER KNOWS BEST and the drama MARCUS WELBY, M.D. Sexy Susan Hayward (Verna) gets top billing, though she dies before the film’s conclusion. Hayward would receive her first Oscar nomination in 1947 for SMASH UP, THE STORY OF A WOMAN, the first of four she earned before taking the golden statue home for 1958’s I WANT TO LIVE! Jane Greer (Janice) co-starred in another ’47 noir, OUT OF THE PAST with Robert Mitchum… but you already knew that, right noir fans? Rita Johnson (Greta) isn’t as well-known as the other ladies, but she’s just right as the clinging wife. Some of her other films are HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, and MY FRIEND FLICKA. Let’s not leave out the Familiar Face Brigade: Don Beddoe , Anthony Caruso, Frank Ferguson, Byron Foulger, Milton Parsons, Tom Powers, and George Tyne all lend solid support.

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Producer Joan Harrison was a long time associate of Alfred Hitchcock, writing screenplays for JAMAICA INN , REBECCA, and FOREIGN CORRESPSONDENT. Harrison would later serve as producer of Hitchcock’s anthology TV series. The production values are high here, with a perfect score by Roy Webb and moody cinematography from Harry J. Wild ( MURDER MY SWEET ). THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME is a great example of 40’s noir filmmaking, and deserves to be included in any discussion of films made during noir’s greatest year, 1947.