Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell) is a District Attorney who has been seeking to have a big shot gangster arrested for some time now, but the man is cunning and always manages to slip from his grasp. However, Foster has a fairly good case against him now, and all he needs is to seize the crime boss's records, thereby ending his reign of terror over the poorest members of society. Or that was the idea, but the criminal is too far ahead of him and has had all his ledgers burned, removing any chance of having him up before the courts. Unless... there was someone who had access to the books... someone like the mysterious Nick Beal (Ray Milland).
This was an update of the Faust story set in a modern, for 1949, city where the lesson was that not only did power corrupt, but the thirst for power also did you little good for your soul. Quite literally, as Milland essayed one of his best roles as the smoothly insinuating devil incarnate who is out to capture that soul of Foster, and can show how easily it is for a hitherto law abiding man to turn to the dark side. Not that the aspiring governor ever does anything truly evil, Beal takes care of that side of things, but he does allow his noble character to be smudged, then throroughly tainted, by his association with the man who appears to be able to grant all his wishes.
At a price, of course, and although the film is a low key thriller for the most part, director John Farrow took the approach to shoot this as if it were a spooky chiller, with some truly marvellous and sinister photography by Lionel Lindon which makes great play of the shadows, not to mention the fog that Beal emerges from, whistling a strange tune. He has a habit of either creeping up on people, so that he is suddenly in the frame without them realising, or vanishes just as easily, so that although they have seen him with their own eyes, he simply won't be there anymore if they go looking for him; basic tricks for sure, but eerily effective when paired with Milland's icy charm.
The script was from Farrow's regular writer Jonathan Latimer, who adapted a story by the mysterious in his own right author Mindret Lord, conjuring up a political morality tale that in spite of the trappings it employed, did threaten towards the dry when it got down to the business of the upstanding ways to fend off the attentions of Satan himself. Bizarrely that veteran villain George Macready took the role of the local minister who attempts to show Foster the light, and in this case casting against type makes a nice change, even if the character's inclusion of the plot resolution some have taken to be a letdown. But Alias Nick Beal was one of a number of forties fantasy-inflected dramas where an unhappy ending would have been seen as giving in to the forces of all that is unholy.
Not cast against type was Audrey Totter, well into her phase of hardboiled dames as the fallen actress (read: prostitute) who Beal coaxes into tempting Foster away from his pure-hearted wife (Geraldine Wall), just one of those who come under the Machiavellian manipulator's spell, although she cannot disguise her creeping unease at the way she is now in over her head. Yet the film even has faith in her that most would not go willingly into partnership with Beal and would try to extricate themselves as Foster's political career improves and the race for the governorship builds. Beal tries to explain himself at one point by telling his victim/pupil that the trouble with politics is that it has to be viewed in black and white terms when it's really coloured in shades of grey, though this film actually sees the set up in those stark terms and will not tolerate Foster's weaknesses. If this is a touch holier than thou, committed performances save it and it's notable that Beal is not entirely vanquished by the close to warn you to be on your guard. Music by Franz Waxman.