Naked Alibi (1954)
Directed by Jerry Hopper
Produced by Ross Hunter
Screenplay by Lawrence Roman
Based on the story “Cry Copper” by Gladys Atwater and J. Robert Bren
Cinematography by Russell Metty
Edited by Al Clark
(1:26) Kino Lorber Blu-ray
You could legitimately think of Naked Alibi as a poor man’s The Big Heat (1953). Both include obsessed cops who lose their jobs, both include a car bomb, and both star Gloria Grahame, who (spoiler) might possibly meet a bad end in each picture. Yet there’s more to the film than that. It’s not really fair to compare Naked Alibi to The Big Heat, a cornerstone film noir classic in the minds of many fans and experts. Naked Alibi is filled with noir elements we’ve seen before (including some we may chuckle over) as well as aspects that prove strikingly effective and memorable.
Naked Alibi opens with naked lighting in probably the brightest interrogation room I’ve ever seen in a film noir. A drunken baker named Al Willis (Gene Barry) is grilled by three cops about his involvement in a string of local robberies. After a round of questioning, Willis gets into a brawl, duking it out with them. (It’s a bit of a stretch to think that any guy who’s this willing to go toe-to-toe with three police officers in a confined space makes his living popping out cakes, bagels and donuts.) As these guys continue exchanging blows, Chief Joe Conroy (Sterling Hayden) stands in the doorway like he’s caught a bunch of fifth-graders smoking in the boys’ room. Conroy lets them have their fun until they overpower Willis. Beaten, but certainly not bowed (yet now sober), Willis vows he’ll get even. “I always do,” he says.
All of this happens just as Conroy learns (via an enormous newspaper headline) that the local councilman wants to investigate the department on charges of police brutality. Oops. We don’t really need this prompt, but the screenwriter really wants to make sure you don’t miss the fact that Conroy’s going to go off the rails in the next reel.
Lt. Fred Parks (Max Showalter), one of the cops who worked on Willis, walks out of a coffee shop and is shot dead. (Drop dead Fred…) We don’t see the killer, but Conroy’s convinced Willis is behind the murder. When the other two cops from the Willis interrogation die in a car bomb, Conroy covertly and overtly follows Willis night and day, but finds no solid evidence. (My favorite “covert” scene involves Conroy smoking a cigarette and wearing a trench coat on a sunny day, hiding behind a tree in Willis’s front yard. Only Sterling Hayden could pull this off, but it still looks like something out of Police Squad.)
Conroy becomes obsessed, telling everyone who’ll listen that Willis is a killer. Once he crosses the line one time too many, Conroy is fired by his superiors, which of course means he can devote all his waking hours to hounding Conroy. Naked Alibi may not have the strongest script (by Lawrence Roman, who also scripted A Kiss Before Dying ) or the strongest director (Jerry Hopper, who worked mostly in television and action pictures), but it does have cinematographer Russell Metty, who also shot The Stranger (1946), Ride the Pink Horse (1947), Touch of Evil (1958) and many others.
One of his best shots in Naked Alibi occurs when a frightened Willis makes a call from a phone booth at night. Not only does Metty give us a sense of claustrophobia, he lights Gene Barry in such a way that he’s outlined in a thin sheen of pure light while the majority of his upper body is totally dark. The shot gives us the impression that there could be a veneer of light on the surface of Willis’s character, but underneath lies a soul so black no light could ever penetrate it.
Willis tells his wife (Marcia Henderson) that he’s going to get out of town for awhile until the pressure from Conroy cools off. “Think of it as a business trip,” he tells her. Monkey business, maybe. Once Wills hits the Mexican border town of Border City (original, right?), we discover that he’s been stepping out with Marianna (Gloria Grahame), a singer in a local dive called El Perico.
This is the point when you realize that without Grahame, Hayden, and Barry, this film would be ordinary at best, and in a worst-case scenario, maybe a full-on laugher. Before this moment, we’ve seen Willis and Conroy mix it up, and those scenes are certainly impressive, but the real magic happens when we see Marianna with Willis, Conroy with Marianna, and all three together. These three actors are able to realize the implications of the script and dialogue and make it sparkle, revealing depth and humanity to their characters. The way these actors bring their characters to life makes everything else in the film look perfunctory.
Our introduction to Marianna finds her performing at the El Perico. Although the men in the club are leering at her, Marianna is clearly bored with the whole situation. She’s waiting for Willis to return, to tell her he’s leaving his wife and is finally going to marry her. Grahame has the ability to convey intense longing, long-suffering, and an alluring playfulness all at the same time. Few actresses can pull that off. As Willis, Barry portrays just enough relief from escaping Conroy, but he won’t be forced by Marianna. All the volatility that’s been caged up inside him because of Conroy could easily explode, with Marianna taking the brunt of it. It’s in Border City where Willis’s real character emerges, and it’s usually with Marianna, who balances a rapidly diminishing hope for the future with the fear of setting Willis off.
Conroy follows Willis to Border City, seeking anyone who’s seen the baker, and gets himself mugged by the locals who can smell a newcomer a mile away. Badly injured and needing help, Conroy just happens to collapse right outside Marianna’s door. Marianna takes him in (while, thankfully, Willis isn’t there) and allows him to stay until he’s better. Hauling in cut-up strangers? “Yeah,” Marianna says, “it’s a hobby with me.” As she tries to find out more about this guy named Joe Carlton (as Conroy calls himself), Conroy discreetly tries to find out whether she knows Willis.
There’s a cautious interplay here and both Grahame and Hayden know how to play it in a way that’s believable and intriguing. Even if we don’t believe a lot of things that happen in the film, we believe these characters and the performances. How many times have we seen Grahame expertly playing a woman harboring a secret or investigating a suspicion? Marianna knows that keeping Conroy there could cost them both dearly, yet she’s intrigued, even excited about Conroy. Is she manipulating him for information or is she genuinely interested? The former seems the best answer, especially when she sits on Conroy’s bed, telling him, “You come, you go… I don’t know anything about you,” as she kisses his neck. “I don’t understand you and you don’t understand me. We’ve got a lot in common.”
Likewise, Conroy sets aside his vitriolic hatred of Willis, playing it close to the vest with Marianna. He knows he’s close, but he also senses Marianna’s come-on and knows there’s something behind it, even sensing a vulnerability that someone like Willis could create in her. Just watch Hayden’s eyes as he’s thinking through all the possibilities, how he should play each move. Like Grahame, he’s spectacular.
Later, Willis suspects Marianna has a lover and that it might even be Conroy. “I know a cheat when I see one,” Willis tells Marianna, which reminds us of Conroy saying basically the same thing about Willis, stating that he knows a killer when he sees one. The moment also brings to mind a similar situation faced by another Gloria Grahame character from a few years earlier, Laurel Gray, in the Nicholas Ray film In a Lonely Place (1950), playing opposite Humphrey Bogart as the explosive Dixon Steele. Grahame brings the same cautious, walking-on-eggshells performance to Marianna.
The film’s best scene occurs when Willis, Marianna, and Conroy all meet together at El Perico. “Go ahead,” Willis taunts Marianna, “Kiss him, make love to him.” It’s a scene so threatening and unnerving for a 1954 film, so much so that Willis brings to mind Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet (1986). In fact, Willis could be Booth’s dad. That’s scary…
Credit Hayden, Grahame, and Barry (and also Russell Metty) for making Naked Alibi something more than a routine film noir, one that could’ve easily been dismissed. Also credit Kino Lorber for giving the film its Blu-ray debut last month. Other than a trailer for this film and other Kino film noir releases (It Always Rains on Sunday, 99 River Street, Shield for Murder, Hidden Fear), the release contains an an audio commentary by critic Kat Ellinger. Pick this one up.
Photos: IMDb, DVD Beaver, Le blog d’Alexandre Clément, Kino Lorber