Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Morlock Looks at Alias, Nick Beal (1949)

The beginning of Lent prompted me to take a look at a Faustian bargain, film noir style, which begins below:

Alias Nick Beal (1949)
Since today is Ash Wednesday it dawned on me that few films might be more ripe for some examination today than Alias Nick Beal (1949), an unjustly obscure retelling of the Faust legend from the gifted, if uneven John Farrow. Coming at the end of the war torn forties, a decade when movies often toyed with stories about the relationship between the world, the flesh and the devil, this rarely seen movie fits uneasily among those films. TCM occasionally trots out some of the best on this slippery topic. There’s the brilliant silent Haxan (1922), the engaging The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), the suavely sinister air of Angel on My Shoulder (1946), the rank scent of corruption in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and the dazzling Mephisto (1982) turning up on the schedule from time to time as cautionary tales that entertain as well. No such cherished fate has befallen this mixture of noir and horror, which has never been released on dvd nor has it been broadcast very often in the last quarter century, though fortunately, this year’s Noir City 7 is presenting a freshly prepared 35mm print from Universal for those lucky enough to attend their screenings around the country .

Alias Nick Beal, which superficially concerns the political machinations in one benighted fictional state, comes to us from another time, and another way of looking at the world. Moviegoers in 1949 would have been keenly aware of some of the historical echoes in the script after living through the facist period, when more than a few believers wondered if an Anti-Christ was present in the world. They would also have been quite familiar with the political context of this story, watching an ambitious, slightly smug but well-meaning District Attorney run for high office. That spectacle was one they had witnessed a year before this film was made, as former NYC prosecutor Thomas Dewey had led a highly publicized fight against organized crime which had led him to the governor’s office in the Empire State. Dewey’s rise led to a run for the presidency that had nearly toppled Harry Truman from office. Even President Truman had risen to power in Washington in the Senate and later as Vice President to Roosevelt thanks in large measure to the support of Missouri’s own master of the machine politicians, Thomas Joseph Pendergast, “an aristocrat among the nation’s politically corrupt elite”, who ran the most powerful political machine in that state for decades. Nor could the filmmakers have been unaware of the HUAC hearings of the year before this production, when the Hollywood Ten were vilified by many for, among other things, following their own consciences...more

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