Just in time for another sultry summer, this month marks a wave of film noir Blu-ray premieres from Kino Lorber, with lurid, screaming titles like The Web (1947) and Larceny (1948). Two others offer eccentric takes on the genre’s traditions.
In director John Farrow’s Alias Nick Beal (1949), Ray Milland plays the title character, a suavely dressed, black-hatted figure materializing out of a shipyard’s ether one night, whistling a tune on a fog-blanketed pier. He strides into a local bar like he owns the place; in fact, he seems to know the pub’s inventory better than the barkeep.
Nick is there to meet Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell), a heroic district attorney, after tempting him, via mysteriously delivered missive to his office, with information that could take down a criminal who has been milking Joseph’s constituents with a protection racket. One thing leads to another, and it’s not long before Nick Beal, who always seems to appear in the right place at the right time, has hooked poor Joseph Foster like a clueless carp. Once a proudly unsullied public servant, Joseph continues to follow Nick’s duplicitous advice, all the way to an apparent governorship, but at what cost?
In case the first four letters of Nick’s surname don’t indicate that the film is a modern Faustian fable, the screenplay, from Jonathan Latimer and Mindret Lord, extinguishes ambiguity within the first 10 minutes or so. “I’d give my soul to nail [the racketeer],” Joseph declares, seconds before Nick’s entreaty winds up on his desk. Later, the typically unflappable Nick cowers at the mere mention of a Bible, underlining the obvious.
Alias Nick Beal isn’t a great noir. Milland’s unctuous devilishness is obvious from his first spectral drift onscreen, the on-the-nose script precludes the intended shocking reveals, and the religious sanctimony undergirding the story is hokey, even for 1949. It holds up better as a political satire wrapped in a Twilight Zone-esque bow.
We watch Mitchell’s Joseph transform from rumpled crusader for justice, who spends his downtime rehabilitating teenage delinquents, to a slick and sartorially dressed politician, cutting deals with third-party candidates to rig elections. Farrow’s movie injects Satan as the inciter of this corruption, which is hardly necessary; this is simply big-city politics at their rotten core, and in this sense, Alias Nick Beal is a movie befitting its cynical time, and perhaps ours.
For a more exceptional, artistically vibrant and empathetic take on the crime genre, check out Joseph von Sternberg’s Thunderbolt (1929). This pre-Code gem — the opening shot tracks a foreboding black cat nuzzling up to Fay Wray’s bare legs, and showgirls with exposed midriffs gyrate onstage a couple of scenes later — is clearly the work of a master filmmaker. Von Sternberg deployed synchronized sound for the first time on Thunderbolt, but the best scenes don’t need it: His takes are ambitiously long and complicated, his camera capturing the expressionistic style honed in his native Germany, as characters are often doubled by their towering silhouettes.
Wray, with her beseeching saucer eyes, plays Ritzy, moll to the title gangster, aka Jim Lang (George Bancroft). She’s trying to go straight, however, with banker paramour Bob Moran (Richard Arlen). At first, the story seems hers, as she is torn between her aspiration to upper-middle-class normalcy and the iron grip of her abusive “protector.” But the second half, which charts Thunderbolt’s road to Damascus after being arrested and tried for murder, is a different beast entirely.
The gangster spends it on a curiously convivial and mythic death row, where a live pianist provides entertainment for the inmates, and Thunderbolt’s fellow convicts urge him to join their barbershop quartet, in which they croon pallid favorites like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in four-part harmony. The jail is overseen by a hysterically exaggerated warden (Tully Marshall) who seems perpetually in over his head, and who momentarily frees Thunderbolt so the experienced enforcer can assist in subduing another prisoner.
Then there’s the dog, a rangy mutt, whose actions prompted Thunderbolt’s downfall as a free man, but for whom he still has affections. His good behavior earns the dog temporary residence in his cell, complete with chew toys. The place isn’t exactly Club Fed, but it’s undoubtedly the most pleasant death row captured on film, and I’m not sure how much of it is supposed to be taken for comedy.
Like Alias Nick Beal, Thunderbolt dispenses with the femme fatale archetype, and perhaps more unusually, it eschews the equally robust stereotype of the morally unsalvageable gang leader. It’s a film light on dramatic fireworks but rich in compassion, with all that amusing business in the prison leading to a genuinely moving tale of redemption — not the typical blaze of vainglory a la Scarface or White Heat but a sober acknowledgment of shared humanity: a bit of light piercing through the noir.