Kino has released Jerry Hopper’s 1954 crime-melodrama Naked Alibi. I can’t recall this ever turning up on local television when I was a kid, so I was excited to finally see it because over the years I’ve read good things about the movie. It sports a good cast, competent, if not particularly interesting direction, and very good camera work, but doesn’t rise much above average because of its undeveloped script which is unfortunate because had the movie gone in a different direction it could have been much more interesting.
The Production: 3/5
The movie opens with a small-town family man, baker Al Willis (Gene Barry) being grilled by cops for being drunk and disorderly. As police chief Joe Conroy (Sterling Hayden) enters the interrogation room things quickly spiral out of control as Willis smashes an ashtray over detective Fred Parks’ (Max Showalter) noggin. Two detectives sitting in the room immediately intervene and work Willis over.
As Willis is being released, he apologizes for overreacting. Shortly later Parks is gunned down in a phone booth. The next day the two detectives who worked Willis over are blown up in a car. And you thought the smashing of the ashtray was overreacting?
Willis is quickly brought in for questioning in the Parks murder, but the police can’t make it stick because they can’t find the weapon. Conroy sets out to nail Willis but is photographed in what looks like an act of police brutality and is fired from the force. Working outside of the system with the still loyal detectives, Conroy vows to nab the cop killer. They do this by ceaselessly tailing Willis in the hope that he will crack.
This is an interesting section because at this point in the movie the viewer is not completely certain if Willis is innocent or guilty and Conroy’s actions could be that of an out of control rogue cop and the participation of law enforcement is out and out harassment and a clear abuse of power.
Willis explains to his wife that the pressure from the police department is getting to him and that he has to go out of town to cool off. Willis heads south to a border town with Conroy following. I know when work gets to me, that’s the excuse I use with my wife for a little R and R in Tijuana. And remarkably enough, she also buys it!
Willis has a girlfriend Marianna (Gloria Grahame) in the unnamed border town who just happens to be a saloon singer and who is unaware of Willis’ double life. Being the ever-alert cop that he is, Conroy is ambushed, robbed, and beaten by a group of middle age juvenile delinquents and ends up being cared for by a young boy Petey (Billy Chapin, the year before The Night of The Hunter) and his grandfather. Petey and his grandfather just so happen to live in the same building and are friends with Marianna.
Marianna assists the boy and old man in caring for Conroy. While going through Conroy’s jacket she finds a wanted flyer with Willis’ photo on it. This sets up the major conflict of the movie, which side will Marianna take?
On paper, Naked Alibi has a lot going for it. It stars two of the most eccentric and most watchable actors of the era, Sterling Hayden and Gloria Grahame as well as a good supporting cast. It’s photographed by Universal workhorse cameraman, the underrated Russell Metty.
Hayden and Grahame don’t really click. Who can explain onscreen chemistry? Film historian Kat Ellinger in her commentary believes it had to do with the fact the two didn’t click romantically offscreen. Ellinger spends a great deal of time talking about Grahame’s flamboyant life. Grahame certainly was an interesting Hollywood figure, but I think a lot of this is pure speculation – in fact, gossip. As far as the two actors are concerned and what they are given to deliver, I think that the lack of fireworks can be attributed to the script and mediocre direction.
It’s not fair to compare movies to other movies, but here I go. I’ll bring up Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil produced at the same studio four years later because there are similarities in script and production. Both movies were shot by the same cameraman (Metty who had previously worked with Welles on the underrated The Stranger) and art direction and set design were by two of the same men (Alexander Golitzen and Russell A. Gausman).
The border town in Touch of Evil serves the same function as it does in Naked Alibi. A place of lawlessness. But in Touch of Evil, the town takes on a metaphorical meaning unlike in Naked Alibi. The town in Touch of Evil is so dripping with atmosphere that it feels like any casual visitor is tainted by its corruption and sordidness. Some scenes of the border town in Touch of Evil were filmed in Venice, California.
Naked Alibi, on the other hand, is shot entirely at Universal with exteriors done on the overly familiar backlot. Other than its more careful photography (the scenes of the cops tailing Willis, some shots of Barry that are backlit with a few highlights on his face stand out), the movie could be an episode from the Revue 1950s television meat grinder. I’m not usually too good at spotting redressed sets, but it looks like the small-town square is the same set as the one from Back to the Future.
Where Naked Alibi falters worst is in the script by Lawrence Roman. Roman was a slick screenwriter and wrote a few notable movies such as A Kiss Before Dying, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, Paper Lion, and Red Sun. I think the sin of Naked Alibi is its utter routineness. It’s the kind of movie that takes place in Movie Land where lazy producers, directors, and writers cynically expect audiences to buy whatever’s happening just because it’s in a movie.
Hayden and Grahame aren’t given anything to do. Gene Barry’s Al Willis is entirely illogical, but Barry thankfully chews up every scene he’s in. I find his chosen cover career as baker particularly funny because baking requires talent and isn’t something you can do just as a cover. Insurance man, owner of a used car lot or in the case of Naked Alibi screenwriter, I’ll buy those, but decorating cakes, that takes real skill!
If Al Willis is a sociopath leading a double life, would he be such a hair-trigger? How long would that serve him? Wouldn’t he exercise a bit more control? Being picked up for a routine drunk and disorderly in the 1950s would at best be a slap on the wrist. Hell, Otis checked himself in regularly on such a charge in Mayberry. The idea that someone who could create an intricate double life would murder three people over something so minor is not believable.
Welles’ corrupt cop Hank Quinlan is a fascinating creation because of the moral ambiguity. He is physically and morally repellent but in spite of that, he is correct about the murder suspect. The audience is supposed to be uneasy with Quinlan’s methods. Because of this, Welles’ Quinlan feels like a tragic Shakespearean character – a good cop, but a lousy detective. Once it’s established that Willis is a crook the audience is not challenged and is expected to root for Conroy’s actions no matter how questionable they are. Naked Alibi is a conformist film where audiences are expected to mindlessly follow Conroy because they’re told he’s a straight shooter.
This brings me to what I think is the worst flaw of the film; the conception of Marianna’s character. The movie is called a Film Noir but isn’t. Had Marianna’s character been better developed it could have been an interesting female noir. Marianna’s character is a typical female, seen-everything, been around-the-block movie character. She ends up in this seedy town because of bad breaks. She thinks she’s in control, but her character is mercilessly abused by both men, who without the slightest compunction lie, cheat, and manipulate her to get what they want without regard for her welfare. She is, in fact, the ‘Noir’ character of the movie. Though innocent, she pays a higher price than anyone in the film. She is punished for her well-intended actions and is to the filmmakers beyond redemption; just a tool to maintain order. Because she is not conventional, she must pay. For her, there is no way out.
3D Rating: NA
The transfer Kino was given for Naked Alibi appears to be an older transfer. It’s a weird transfer because there appears to be some kind of video noise present. I don’t think it grain and is only really noticeable in lighter neutral surfaces such as unadorned walls, the sky, or light-colored cars. It’s not too distracting but detracts from an otherwise good transfer
The DTS-HD Master 2 mono is fine. English subtitles are included.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger. Ellinger’s commentaries tend to ramble. There’s a great deal of time spent on stars Gloria Grahame and Sterling Hayden but little to the actual production. I take exception to the film being described as both a Film Noir (see above) but understand the mislabeling if used to sell extra copies in a dwindling market, and I also am unsure of it being described as a ‘B’ movie. Universal product of the era is similar to Columbia product. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between ‘A’ and ‘B’ product. The difference between the two studios is that Columbia ‘A’ product was clear due to stars and directors and included films like Born Yesterday, The Caine Mutiny, From Here to Eternity, The Eddy Duchin Story. The only obvious ‘A’ product from Universal I can think of is the James Stewart/Anthony Mann pictures. Universal routinely assigned ‘A’ talent like Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Jeff Chandler, and director Douglas Sirk to pictures that ten years earlier would have been ‘B’ product. I’ve heard Touch of Evil described as a ‘B’ picture and this was two years after Charlton Heston had starred as Moses in DeMille’s blockbuster The Ten Commandments.
Ellinger also tries to make the case for Hooper as an interesting director whose feature career was derailed to changing times and migration of talent to television, but I’m not buying this either. Hooper may have been perfectly suited to the pace of television production, but his feature credits are nothing to champion other than directing the film that inspired the creation of Indiana Jones, which I view as a mixed blessing.
The theatrical trailer
Naked Alibi is pretty routine. It’s the kind of movie that one might have caught in a theater or on the late show and thought, ‘oh, that was ok’. I can always watch Hayden and Grahame. I always admire Russell Metty’s camera work. It’s too bad Naked Alibi isn’t better because it could have been. But not every 50s crime movie can be Touch of Evil.https://www.amazon.com/Naked-Alibi-Blu-ray-Sterling-Hayden/dp/B07WPX4V1T/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=naked+alibi&qid=1581893859&s=movies-tv&sr=1-1
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