Sunday, January 02, 2011

Strange Alibi (1941)

Even if one is familiar with the hyperkinetic work of the underappreciated noir director D. Ross Lederman, his films of the 1940s still have the power to shock the contemporary viewer with their violence, their breathless narrative speed, and the strange twists of fate that befall Lederman’s hapless protagonists. In Strange Alibi (1942), a very young Arthur Kennedy plays the role of Joe Geary, an honest cop who goes undercover to smash a police corruption ring that is crippling the city. Staging a “fight” with his superior, Chief Sprague (Jonathan Hale), Geary is ostensibly kicked off the force in disgrace, and soon hooks up with the hoodlum element in the city, as a formerly good cop who has “gotten wise” to himself. In short order, Geary discovers that Captain Reddick (Cliff Clark) and Lt. Pagle (Stanley Andrews) are behind the crime wave that plagues the city, and 63 minutes later, brings the miscreants to justice. But this brief synopsis gives no real sense of the frenzied, fatalistic pace Strange Alibi almost immediately adopts, so here, in brief, is a look at this remarkable film.

The opening shot of Strange Alibi shows a plane in midair, which lands a few moments later. The passengers rapidly deplane, including retired gambling boss King Carney (Herbert Rawlinson), who has been living in Florida after narrowly escaping execution at the hands of his underworld competitors. Carney has returned to the city to cooperate with Chief Sprague in cleaning up the rackets, and is set to testify before the Grand Jury the next morning. In a brief conversation with two reporters at the airport, Carney outlines his plan of action, and then catches a cab to the police station.

But in a typically Ledermanian touch, Carney is suddenly cut down in a hail of machine gun bullets from a passing car, and the reporters, who have witnessed his murder, immediately phone the story in to their papers. Less than twenty seconds after this, the identity of the killer, Louie Butler (Butler is never seen in the film, and makes his only “appearance” later as an off-screen, heavily shadowed, “uncredited” corpse) is discovered, and Lederman presents a frenzied montage of the police rounding up suspects, smashing into gambling clubs and bars, until they arrest the hapless Butler as one a mob of miscreants, through the judicious use of stock footage. Off-screen, Butler is taken into police custody, but then moved from the main jail to an off-site holding cell for the sake of “security.”

The next morning, Chief Sprague arrives at Police Headquarters to question Butler, only to discover that he has ostensibly committed suicide in his holding cell, using his belt to hang himself. Sprague immediately realizes that the supposed “suicide” is actually murder, and summons his entire staff to his office to reprimand them for allowing the murder to take place. It is at this juncture that Sprague and Geary stage their premeditated altercation, and Geary is supposedly thrown off the force. Lederman swiftly moves to the evening of the next day, as Geary and Sprague plot their campaign against the underworld in a secret hideaway. Geary agrees to keep his masquerade a secret, even from his fiancée Alice Devlin (Joan Perry).

Lederman then pushes the plot forward to the ironically named Safe Anchorage Café, a water front gambling joint of singular disrepute, owned and operated by Katie (the perennially hard-boiled Florence Bates, in real life a lawyer in Texas before turning to acting as a profession, and best remembered for her portrayal of the fortune-hunting Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca [1940]), an imposing matriarch who has nevertheless long ago decided to cooperate with the city’s criminal elite. Katie is sad to see Geary running around with the hoodlums who control the city, but realizes she can do nothing about it.

Geary swiftly insinuates himself into the gang as a “bag man,” making the rounds to collect the mob’s illicit payoffs from slot machines, the numbers game and various protection rackets. To further ingratiate himself with his new companions, Geary strong arms a minor underworld figure, “Fido” Durkin (Ben Weldon), into paying off a long-standing debt to the mob by wrecking his place of business. Impressed, Geary’s handlers take him straight to the top of the criminal pyramid, to meet the big bosses. Meanwhile, Geary’s fiancée, as well as his former friend and honest cop Captain Allen (Wade Boteler), watch Geary’s seeming descent into the world of crime with undisguised disgust.

The mysterious “A. E. Laughlin,” the supposed head of the syndicate, which operates under the nebulous name “Consolidated Enterprises,” turns out to be a “straw man” dreamed up by Lt. Pagle and Captain Reddick as a front for the illicit enterprises. In fact, Laughlin doesn’t even exist; he’s simply a name on a door, while Pagle and Reddick run the entire operation. Geary is shocked to discover that the city’s police force is so thoroughly corrupt, and under the pretext of finding a doctor for the gang’s obviously tubercular, perpetually coughing thug Benny McKaye (Joe Downing), races to Chief Sprague’s apartment to tell him the news. But, unsurprisingly, Pagle is still suspicious of Geary’s recent “conversion” to crime, and trails Geary and McKaye to Sprague’s clandestine rendezvous.

Overhearing their conversation, Pagle bursts in and fatally shoots Sprague, framing Geary for the murder. Benny McKaye, who has witnessed the murder, escapes through a window. With Sprague dead, Geary has no alibi, and Pagle and Reddick easily railroad him into prison, where the sadistic warden, Monson (Howard Da Silva, in a brutally convincing performance) torments Geary on a nonstop basis, throwing him into the “hole” for extended stretches of time on the vaguest of pretexts.

Gang members Big Dog (Dick Rich) and “Fido” Durkin are now inmates in the penitentiary along with Geary, and do their best to kill Geary at every possible opportunity, but Geary shrugs them off. At the same time, the repellent Monson is so universally hated by the cons that, one day on the rock pile, a group of inmates contrive to drop a boulder on Monson with a steam shovel. The attempt fails, but Monson is wounded. In the confusion, Geary and his one true friend in the prison, Tex Alexander (John Ridgely) escape in a waiting ambulance, which was to have taken Monson to the hospital, setting off a superbly designed chase sequence.


Big Dog is furious that Geary might escape before he can kill him, and jumps on the running board of the fleeing ambulance in a last ditch attempt to murder Geary. But Geary’s luck holds; Big Dog is cut down in yet another hail of machine gun bullets from the prison guards. After considerable violence and mayhem, Tex is killed, and Geary makes good his escape, but discovers that Benny McKaye, the one witness to the murder of Chief Sprague, has died of consumption. In a desperate, last ditch attempt to prove his innocence, Geary kidnaps no less than the Governor of the state, Phelps (Charles Trowbridge), and forces him to phone Captain Reddick and Lt. Pagle, telling them that Benny McKaye is alive, and has fingered Pagel for Chief Sprague’s murder.

Geary parks his car across the street from Governor Phelps’ apartment with Benny McKaye’s corpse in the driver’s seat, and watches with Phelps as Reddick and Pagle “murder” Benny in yet another spectacularly violent drive-by shooting. This is more than enough evidence for Phelps, who is now convinced of Geary’s innocence. The Governor quickly brings in the state police to arrest Reddick and Pagle, and clear Geary of Sprague’s murder. Geary, completely exhausted from the ordeal, falls asleep on the governor’s couch, utterly drained by his harrowing descent into crime.

Even this brief synopsis of the film’s convoluted and frenzied narrative does little to convey the ferocity with which Strange Alibi is directed, and leaves out, astonishingly, a number of subplots much too complex to detail here. Lederman’s camera coverage is always proactive, searching for the best possible angle for each sequence, each shot, moving with utter assurance in a series of fluid tracking shots through Consolidated Enterprise’s corrupt domain. “Cookies” (metal sheets with patterned holes cut in them, placed in front of the set’s lights, to project patterned shadows onto the sets and actors) are used liberally throughout the film to give each set-up added punch and atmosphere.

Whenever possible, Lederman uses a series of swiftly moving montage sequences to compress time and narrative exposition. Da Silva’s Monson is a memorably despicable creation, prowling through the prison yard, nightstick at the ready, a sneer firmly etched on his brutal visage, as he clubs into submission longtime prisoners who can no longer defend themselves from his viciousness with undisguised glee. Continually referring to Geary as “the defective detective,” Monson seizes upon any minor infraction of the prison rules to hurl Geary into solitary confinement. Lederman deftly conveys the depths of Geary’s desolation and anger in the “hole” in an economical nine-shot montage that begins with Geary being pushed into the darkened cell, then refusing food as the days pass by, at length accepting bread and water rather than starving, and ending with a haunting close up of Geary’s eyes, as he realizes that his plight is seemingly hopeless.

As another example of directorial economy, when Tex and Geary escape from prison in the ambulance, Lederman uses footage from Lloyd Bacon’s San Quentin (1937) to heighten the tempo of the chase sequence, and through resourceful editing, forces the getaway car to cross the tracks of a speeding locomotive not once, but twice. The second time, the car smashes into the speeding train and rolls into a ditch. Tex is killed, but Geary escapes by running after the train, and jumping on a boxcar. Here, Lederman is harking back to his days as a stuntman and 2nd assistant director with the Keystone Kops, where similar sequences were staged for comedy; here, the entire affair is conducted with absolutely earnestness.

Throughout Strange Alibi, all authority is shown as worthless, corrupt, or inefficient; no one believes Geary’s protestations of innocence at his trial for Sprague’s death, and the prosecutor is obviously much too anxious to convict Geary to entertain the possibility that anyone else might be responsible for the crime. Typically for Lederman, Geary’s fiancée, Alice Devlin, is an entirely one-dimensional character, who exists within the film merely to assure Geary that “I’ll be waiting” when he gets out of prison, which without any outside help isn’t likely. This is really a function of her character within the film’s narrative; Alice is essentially a “good” person, and Lederman thus doesn’t know what to do with her.

The only other female character of consequence, the café owner Katie, is an exquisitely corrupt member of the “Laughlin” mob, and though she eventually switches allegiances to help Geary in his fight to clear his name, she remains for sale to the highest bidder for most of the film’s brief running time. Shot with vibrant intensity by the gifted veteran Allen G. Siegler, and tightly edited by Frank Magee, Strange Alibi is a curiously compelling film, which resonates in the memory long after the last violent scene has faded from the screen. And all of this has happened in just 63 minutes.

Lederman’s films of the 1940s tell us more about the real circumstances of life in working class America than films like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) or Leo McCarey’s Going My Way (1944) ever could. The film that displayed Leo McCarey’s bleak vision of humanity with the greatest accuracy is arguably his Cold War drama My Son John (1952), a “Red Scare” film that portrays a social universe of ignorance, fear, and claustrophobic paranoia. Like Lederman, McCarey saw the world as a dangerous place, beset with false ideals and imminent peril, but for most of his career, McCarey was content to make generic confections that reinforced the dominant order. But they didn’t really show the world as McCarey saw it. Not surprisingly, My Son John has been absolutely suppressed, is never run on television, and is unavailable on DVD, while Going My Way is screened repeatedly on television, and readily available in home video format.

The majority of Lederman’s best films from the 1940s - Bullet Scars (1942), I Was Framed (1942), The Gorilla Man (1943), The Last Ride (1944), Escape From Crime (1942) and Adventure in Iraq (1943) to name just a few - have assumed the same phantom status as My Son John; they pop up on TCM from time to time, but only a few of Lederman’s early westerns, and two Warners features from the 1940s, are available on DVD. We’re never going to get a box set of his films, that’s for sure. But then D. Ross Lederman never catered to his audiences in the first place; he made his films for a pittance, without studio interference, entirely for himself alone. It did not matter what script he was required to use, or what actors, or whether it was a western, a crime film, or an action film; D. Ross Lederman saw America as a dark, violent maelstrom, in which only the corrupt and the brutal survive.

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Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon


Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at UNL, and with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Editor-in-Chief of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books include A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press and Edinburgh University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film, written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (Rutgers University Press and I.B. Tauris, 2008). As a filmmaker, his complete works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, following a career retrospective at MoMA in 2003.






2 comments:

  1. Excellent review, can't wait to track this down!

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  2. Arthur Kennedy and Florence Bates in one multi-layered movie! I am so glad to hear about this movie in detail. Excellent review that made me lust after this film, which, since it seems very intriguing, is, of course, not readily available or broadcast anywhere. One more on a long list of films I've learned about from this great blog...thanks!

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