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Righteous district attorney Joseph Foster's main goal in life is to rid his city of the gangsters infesting it. In order to be even more efficient in his war against crime he plans to run for governor. One day he meets a strange, shadowy man, Nick Beal, who offers to help him to achieve his end. Beal convinces hesitating Foster by dint of easy money, easy sex with an alluring young woman and the promise of easy success. Joseph Foster soon becomes an influential politician but a corrupt one. A minister of God manages to show him that he has been the plaything of the so-called Nick Beal, who might be "Old Nick" , that is to say Satan himself. Foster then decides to resign and to become an honest man again. Written by
Ray Milland managed to do something that few critics were ever willing to admire him for. He was a good looking man of Welsh (not English) ancestry, who could play members of the English upper class. But he was always willing to stretch a bit more than other similar actors. For one thing, he could play villains. Even in his early career he was frequently cast as a weakling or a gigolo (as in "We're Not Dressing"). He was willing to experiment with comic roles as well as straight drama. The result was that from 1942 to 1951 or so Milland was a Hollywood star. He played the leads in films as various as "Reap the Wild Wind", "The Major and the Minor", "The Ministry of Fear", "The Big Clock", "The Lost Weekend", "Golden Earings", and "Alias Nick Beal". While some of his films were comedies (such as "The Major and the Minor" and "Skylark") quite a number were dramas or even melodramas. And some of his characters skirt the edge of acceptable behavior. He is a man who has just been released for committing a mercy killing of his wife in "The Ministry of Fear". Although he is basically innocent, he is a flirtatious type in "The Big Clock". Even in Wilder's "The Major and The Minor" there is a moment when Milland, smiling at the thought of what a real "knockout" "Sue-sue Applegate" (actually grown-up Ginger Rogers) is, suddenly gets a really pained look in his face - he does not like that he's thinking lascivious thoughts about a child.
His deserved "Oscar" for "The Lost Weekend" is another example of this dark side - he is supposed to be a writer, but he is a poseur with a serious drinking problem. In fact, he contemplates suicide at the conclusion of the film, only to be stopped by Jane Wyman.
In "Alias Nick Beal" he played his most sinister part (except possibly Tony Wendice in "Dial "M" For Murder"). Here he played Satan, and he is in total control of the game throughout of the movie - the game being politics and power over people. On one level, if one forgets the supernatural elements, "Alias Nick Beal" is as good an abject lesson in the back room deals of American politics as the comedies "The Senator Was Indiscreet" or Preston Sturges' "The Great McGinty". Only here, with violent death thrown in, the seediness of it all becomes more apparent. Possibly the best moment is when the honest, and mostly honorable, Thomas Mitchell is forced to shake hands with Fred Clark, the most notorious political boss in the state. On the other level is the serious attempt to keep some religious allegory in, with people like George Macready (here in a rare good guy part) noting that Beal resembles an ancient picture of the Devil, and that "Los islas de las almas perditas" where Beal comes from means, "The Island of Lost Souls". Religion does play a crucial role in the film, including it's completion.
Leslie Halliwell made the observation that after this film none of the stars ever did as well again. This is not true. Milland did play the evil Tony Wendice, and Macready went on to the mad French general in "Paths of Glory". But more important, Milland kept showing his ability to stretch in the remaining decades of his life. Besides writing his interesting autobiography "Wide Eyed in Babylon", he directed several films, he appeared in several televisions series (one of the few stars who did not fear the new medium - and he was rewarded here too, for in the 1970s and 1980s he was still appearing while many contemporaries retired). Finally he capped his career as the snobbish father in "Love Story". Actually his career is an example of just what can be accomplished if a person is not ashamed to jettison useless or outdated personalities for new ones.
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