Friday, August 10, 2012


District attorney Foster says in passing that he would sell his soul to break the stranglehold that Hanson's protection racket has on the city. One night, he is told to go the China Coast Café for some information. Out of the fog comes the whistling figure of Nick Beal; he claims to have Hanson's accounting books which had supposedly been destroyed. Foster takes the books, even though he knows they must have been stolen, and Beal vanishes. After Hanson is sent to prison, Foster is talked into running for governor and Beal comes back into Foster's life, offering to smooth his way into office. Those around Foster, including his wife, aren't happy with Beal's influence (and it seems strange that Beal leaves the room when a minister starts quoting the Bible), but soon Beal is running the show and Foster's wife has become estranged. Sure enough, Beal is the Devil, and Foster wins the election, but when Foster shows signs of attempting to renounce his ill-gotten gains, can even the help of his minister save his eternal soul?

This fantasy melodrama is one-of-a-kind. For a while, we're not certain that Beal is a supernatural figure, but even when we know he is, the film mostly plays it straight, like a slightly off-kilter film noir. Foster (Thomas Mitchell) is a good man with good intentions, and at various times, he tries not to take Beal's help, but as long as he thinks he’s doing good for the people, he gives in. At one point, Beal (Ray Milland) sets up a prostitute (noir gal Audrey Totter) to entrap Foster, and she does indeed get wrapped up in Foster's life and campaign, but she can't bring herself to enlist fully in the Devil's work. The ending, which involves the traditional signed pact for Foster’s soul, is a bit of a fizzle, but it doesn't hurt the film, which is a marvel of noir shadows and nighttime scenes. Milland at first struck me as a bit one-note, but it's an effective note; he's always both calm but intense, even when things don’t seem to be going his way. Mitchell and Totter are both fine; the cast includes George Macready playing a bit against type as the minister, Fred Clark as a gangster, and Daryl Hickman as a wayward youth saved by the minister. Never released officially on home video, I saw this on YouTube in a good print, and I hope someday Universal will be moved to put it out on DVD.  [YouTube]

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