Darkly Fascinating Exploration Of Good And Evil, With Some Clever Twists
Reviewed in the United States on 26 August 2021
I very much enjoyed this dark fable of the subtle seductiveness of evil, and the power of redemption.
Ray Milland is absolutely superb in his role as Nick Beal, a supernaturally gifted interloper in human affairs. In fact, I've never seen him better; his performance here is even more potent, believable, affecting, and nuanced than it was in The Lost Weekend (1945), for which he won an academy award. He's certainly at the top of his game in this film.
Thomas Mitchell, the beloved Uncle Billy of It's A Wonderful Life (1946), is quite strong, too, as the ethical district attorney who, in the midst of his good intentions, is led down a slippery path of moral relativity.
Geraldine Wall, who we don't seem to hear enough about in film reviews and essays, plays Mitchell's wife, and she's extremely good as well. She has stalwart strength, wisdom, and a highly perceptive insight that, quite frankly, the character of her husband seems to lack.
Film noir regulars George Macready and Fred Clark provide solid support to the proceedings. They add texture and color to the drama.
But I must say that Audrey Totter is simply stunning in her performance as a thoroughly down on her luck "lady of the streets". Her otherworldly transformation from a truly pitiful wreck of a woman, into a glamorous and chillingly manipulative agent of sinister forces, has to be seen to be believed. It's an incredible transition in both style and substance, and it adds immeasurably to the film's mystique and its quiet power. Totter's performance is undeniably one of the dramatic cornerstones of this movie.
As for the plot, and the narrative, it's hard to know where to begin. This film is a theological exploration, but it is very definitely also a suspense thriller. And it is also a morality play, but it is a subtly toned character study as well.
And.... this movie is creepy. Very, very creepy. As in, for instance, the fact that Ray Milland's character "can't stand to be touched". Or that Milland very casually kills one of his underlings on the wharf; if he is, indeed, "Lucifer", is he allowed to kill human beings on a whim? That's a theological quandary, if you ask me. And Audrey Totter's character is ostensibly "evil" and chilling, but she is also so thoroughly human that it's obvious she has potent qualities of grace and goodness running beneath the surface.
Milland himself is a major factor in this creepiness. He is charming, alluring, and thoroughly persuasive in his methods. But, each and every moment, there is something "not quite right" about this gentleman. He's slightly "off". Even in all of his charisma and facile maneuvering, he is still disturbingly off-center and frighteningly sinister.
This has to be a once in a lifetime peak performance on Milland's part.
And back to the plot -- it's a relatively simple one: Should you perform -- or succumb to -- a series of little evils in order to vanquish a greater evil? Or should you look the other way at ethical breaches and slippery morality, in order to do a "good deed"? Even though the plot is straightforward, it is still powerful and gripping. And you can't help but feel for Thomas Mitchell's character as he passionately tries to defeat criminal kingpins, while at the same time becoming steadily more corrupt himself.
All told, i thought this was a marvelous movie. Some viewers may object to the "happy ending", which is largely facilitated by George Macready and Geraldine Wall's characters. Personally, I thought the ending worked quite well, but it may not be very fashionable, in the 21st century, for evil to be defeated so soundly.
I enjoyed every minute of this film. I can easily see myself watching it again and again. It's a classic of it's genre. And it does have some clear film noir aspects, especially in its cinematography and characterizations.
I hope you will enjoy this supernatural tour de force as much as I did.
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