Friday, May 22, 2009

Naked Alibi (1954)


To the End of the Line

“They’ll get you copper. One of those trigger-happy bulls you used to boss around is going to blow your head off.”


I was watching a Guy Ritchie film when 15 minutes into the plot, I realized that I didn’t have the foggiest idea what was going on. All those zoom in and zoom out shots, quick cuts and other gimmicky Ritchie maneuvers just confused me. I gave up, and it was with a sense of relief I turned to the 1954 noir, Naked Alibi from director Jerry Hopper.

Naked Alibi is not a first-tier noir. It’s a B movie. No argument from this fan, but at the same time, simply because it’s a B film, low budget, stripped down to its bare bones, and relying on camera, plot and the main characters, well some film makers could learn a few things from this B film. Subtract big budget, special effects and gimmicks, and let’s see what’s left, and in Naked Alibi, shot in just one month, we have a clean, simple, surprisingly good noir.

From the beginning of the credits, we know this is 50s noir as a police cruiser glides in front of a police station. It’s night and the music suits the mood, but then segues into shades of a tawdry stripper-Peyton-Place drift. This is the 50s giveaway. The action then moves to a police interrogation room. The cops have arrested a man for being drunk and disorderly. He has no ID. Perhaps that wouldn’t be a big deal on another day in another town, but in this town things are tense. There’s been a string of armed robberies and the pressure’s on to solve the crimes. But with no clues and no leads, the cops are getting jumpy, and tonight, they’ve jumped on a drunk.

The drunk in custody claims to be a baker. Funny, he doesn’t look like a baker. He looks like a tough guy. The drunk is belligerent but sticks to his story; he claims to be Al Willis--married man, father, and the owner of a bakery. This all sounds very respectable, but nervous and sweaty Al (Gene Barry) not only doesn’t look like a baker he doesn’t act like one either. When Chief Joe Conroy (Sterling Hayden) arrives, the questioning has become rough. Out of the blue, Al jumps the cops, whacking one over the head and tussling with all three. But it’s Al’s reaction that bears scrutiny. Like a caged tiger teased with a stick he snarls “stinking cops. Nobody socks me around like that.” He swears he’ll get even, and he looks as though he means it.

Al’s identity is proven correct, and he’s released. That night Lt Parks (Max Showalter), one of the three cops involved in the Al Willis brawl is gunned down, and Conroy remembers Al’s promise to get even. He arrests Al, but without a murder weapon, and with an alibi, nothing will stick. Then, the other two cops who brawled with Al Willis are blown up, and again Conroy is convinced that Al is to blame. Al is arrested but once more nothing sticks thanks to his cast-iron alibi. Conroy’s insistence that the local baker is a cop killer doesn’t sit well with either the Police Commissioner or Al’s councilman, and before long it looks as though Conroy is out to harass a “respectable citizen.” To be a cop killer, you have to be a cop hater, and while Al spews hate at some moments, he also knows how to play the meek victim. Although he’s warned off by his superiors, Conroy continues his relentless pursuit, and some compromising, misleading photos lead to Conroy being out of a job.

Just as Al swore to get even with the cops, Conroy swears to get even with Al, and Conroy seems to understand his quarry well. Reasoning that Al has an explosive temper (and he’s seen proof of it), Conroy decides to provoke Al into a confrontation. With the veneer of mental stability rapidly unraveling, Al wisely decides to take a trip. He tells his devoted, long-suffering little wife that he’s going away. He takes a bus south--across the border into Mexico and sallies into Border Town. Conroy decides to follow Al right into Border Town--a thinly disguised Tijuana. It’s a wild place as Conroy finds out about 5 minutes after hitting town. Approached by a kid who’s selling dirty postcards, Conroy then runs right into some local hoods.

It’s here in Border Town that things get hot, and most of the heat comes from gorgeous Gloria Grahame as Marianna. Employed to sing and dance in a tawdry little dive called El Perico, Marianna seems wildly out of place. But her mesmerized, drooling audience of hungry men don’t stop to ask questions, they just stare as Marianna performs a sexy number. Dressed in a revealing dress that looks more like something for the vamp boudoir, Gloria lip synchs as she sashays around the room. Gloria couldn’t, apparently, carry a tune, but that’s okay because she more than makes up for this in every other department. Her performance rivals that of Rita Hayworth in Gilda, and as you watch her make her moves, the question of what such a gorgeous dame is doing in a dump in Border Town is answered when Al shows up. She’s his girl and she’s been waiting for him.

Once in Mexico, Al sheds his mild-mannered baker demeanor and reveals his true psychotic nature: giggling (think shades of Tommy Udo), violent and dangerously jealous, and all on a split second trigger….


Humans seethe with desire and lust while coveting every conceivable object not yet possessed--it’s all part of our nature, but one of the characteristics that differentiates noir characters from the mainstream is that they are prepared to do something about it. In fact noir characters have the determination to get what they want by going as far as it takes. Consider Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity. Neff is an ambitionless insurance salesman content to take the easy path in life until he meets Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman he desires so much he’s ready to go all the way, abandoning his professional ethics and his loyalty to Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) on his careening path to murder. And then there’s Lt. Halliday (Robert Mitchum) in The Big Steal who meets up with Joan Graham (Jane Greer) in Mexico while they are both on a no-holds barred pursuit of Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles)--a character who ripped them both off. In true noir form Halliday and Joan don’t leave it up to others to pursue their quarry as Fiske slips deeper and deeper into Mexico. Faithful to the no-holds barred creed of noir behaviour, Halliday and Joan go for the jugular as they pursue Fiske to the end of the line, and it’s this sort of ruthless, relentless determination that marks noir characters from the herd--on both sides of the good and evil divide. They never give up.

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Noir often focuses on the characters’ lemming-like drive to obtain the goal of a woman or cold hard cash and who then are paradoxically willing to destroy themselves in the process of securing their greatest desire. For these driven characters, desire dwarfs common sense and all moral considerations as they buy a one-way ticket to self-destruction. This self-destructive determination is clearly evident in Naked Alibi, and it’s a phenomenon that sets all three main characters--Al, Conroy and Marianna on a collision course. Cast in the middle of the explosive Al Willis and the calm steadiness of Conroy, Gloria acts as a perfect foil to both the male characters. Their violent 3-way relationship forms an echo chamber that very effectively amplifies and reinforces Conroy’s determination to get revenge, Al’s paranoia and desire to keep his double life, and Marianna’s desire to discover the truth. Each character has opportunities to walk away, but none of them can. They are committed to the final destination--whatever that may be. Marianna, the character who becomes swept up by the hunt and quest for vengeance has plenty of opportunity to walk away. But she doesn’t. Given the opportunity to stay outside of the destructive vortex created by this triangular-cyclone she steps back into the action, committed to the end of the line. Fate is irresistible and unavoidable and explodes into one of noir cinema’s greatest final scenes on the roof of a church.

One of the reasons Naked Alibi works so well is its excellent casting. Hayden, Barry and Gloria Grahame make the perfect noir cocktail. Even though Hayden’s career began as a model, he plays a true straight arrow. At 6’5” he always seemed to be too damn tall to be a criminal and made a much better cop, sheriff, government agent. Perhaps his days as an undercover agent in the CIO (Office of the Coordinator of information) left a mark. Hayden was married 5 times--three times to the same woman.

With previous credits such as The Atomic City (another Hopper film) and Those Redheads from Seattle to his name, Naked Alibi represented a big break for Gene Barry. In spite of the fact he’s uncomfortably convincing as the psychotic Al Willis, Barry’s Hollywood career never really made the big time, but he certainly made an enormous splash in television.

Gloria Grahame, one of my all-time favourite noir actresses, was at the peak of her Hollywood career in 1954 with a string of recent noir films to her credit--Sudden Fear & The Bad and The Beautiful (1952), The Big Heat & Human Desire (1953) when she made Naked Alibi. In her personal life, Gloria and her second husband, director Nicholas Ray were divorced in 1952, and she was dating soon-to-be third husband, Cy Howard during the making of Naked Alibi. The scandal over her relationship with her stepson, Tony (who later became her fourth husband) was in her past, but certainly not off-the-record. In Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahameauthor Vincent Curcio states that Gloria came on to Sterling Hayden so strongly that she frightened him off, and this shows in the scene when Conroy is in bed and Marianna makes a move. A million men would gladly change places with Hayden as he sprawls in bed and Gloria moves in for the kill, but Hayden doesn’t look comfortable and you can almost see him cringe. Gloria Grahame is at the height of her smoldering beauty for this picture, and the form-fitting dress worn for the El Perico scenes shows off her spectacular shoulders to perfection. Gloria was undergoing obsessive plastic surgery on her upper lip during this period, and again this shows in a few profile shots when you can spot her upper lip’s immobility. Gorgeous Gloria--one of the greatest and most enigmatic names in noir film never got over her image problems. But for fans, she left behind a legacy of riveting noir films, and Naked Alibi succeeds largely due to her presence.



Written by Guy Savage




3 comments:

  1. I own this movie poster (love it!) but have never seen the movie! Can't find it anywhere - not on Netflix, Blockbuster, Movies Unlimited, Amazon... where did you find it? Has it even been released on video? Or did you see it on late night TV or what? You can email me at teri433@gmail.com if you see this. Great article, by the way! Thanks for some great info and video clips!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Heyyy

    In connection to this site.
    How about a forum/blog, where Noir people can trade items : posters,dvd's,stills,autographs and so on ?

    Regards
    Ole "Knuckles" Wennike
    Copenhagen

    ReplyDelete
  3. Knuckles: There is a site for that: www.backalleynoir.com

    ReplyDelete

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