Naked Alibi
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // $19.89 // November 5, 2019
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 20, 2019
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Though always fun to watch actors Sterling Hayden, Gloria Grahame, and Gene Barry, Universal-International's B-level film noir crime thriller Naked Alibi (1954) is let down by a preposterous script with absurd characters and situations. Much of the story revolves around a character leading a double life, but writer Lawrence Roman, working from Gladys Atwater and J. Robert Bren's story "Cry Cooper," seem to confuse that type of character with those suffering from extreme multiple personality disorder. The plot also hinges on a highly improbable coincidence, and at times almost plays like a parody of classic noir, particularly Grahame's little monologue near the end.

Police Chief Joe Conroy (Hayden) is certain humble local baker Al Willis (Barry) is responsible for the murder of Det. Lt. Fred Parks (Max Showalter) following a tense police interrogation, and later for blowing up a police car killing officers also involved in Willis's arrest. Conroy is fired after a press photographer captures an image of the policeman appearing to brutalize Willis, but still won't let up. Eventually Willis skips town, telling his supportive wife, Helen, that he needs to clear his head.

Conroy, acting alone, follows Willis to Border Town, in Mexico according to Wikipedia and other sources. There, Willis resumes his criminal activities and abusive relationship with saloon singer Marianna (Grahame). Shortly after arriving, Conroy is rolled by a trio of thugs (one is played by actor Michael Fox) who stab him, steal his wallet and leave him for dead. In a too-amazing coincidence, his lifeless body is discovered by Petey (Night of the Hunter's Billy Chapin), who just so happens to live in the apartment directly below Marianna, along with his Uncle Charley (Paul Newlan). (Uncle Charlie and Petey are described in some sources as Mexican, but they sure don't look or act it, nor does practically anyone else.) Ironically, it's Marianna who cares for Conroy, the very man looking to nail her boyfriend.

The biggest problem with Naked Alibi is that early scenes depict Willis as a pillar of his local community, sweet and kind to his wife, and a hard worker tirelessly kneading dough at the bakery. Gene Berry plays him as halting and apparently uneducated, but very possibly innocent, and that maybe Conroy is obsessively, misguidedly trying to pin a rap on him.

But once in Border City, Willis, for lack of a better term, goes ape-shit. Insanely jealous, he threatens anyone who so much looks at his girlfriend, and considering her occupation as a singer, he's frequently beating people within an inch of their life. Willis here is cocky and conniving, brooding with hate, the very opposite of his mild-mannered counterpart. None of this remotely corresponds to the real phenomenon of people leading double lives, an interesting subject pretty much bypassed here entirely.

Gene Barry's scenery-chewing as Border Town Willis doesn't contrast well with Sterling Hayden's hard-boiled stoicism. Hayden's acting was in a different class, more like Robert Mitchum's seeming "non-acting" acting. Mitchum was better at it and more versatile, but both possessed a kind of utter authenticity one can't fake, and Hayden is eminently watchable in just about anything. In spite of the bad script, he's mesmerizing throughout, and the excellent high-def transfer allows viewers to study his eyes and face intimately.

The coincidence that Conroy, stabbed and left for dead, would virtually wind up in Marianna's bed is a big stretch, but equally so is all that follows. Though in footage of the attack Conroy appears to have been stabbed deep by a long knife, Marianna insists he doesn't need to see a doctor. Indeed, the film suggests he needs no stitching up, and no bandages, either, just plenty of bed rest. It works, too. Within a few days, Conroy is back to fisticuffs, never once wincing from his recent wounding.

Reportedly the picture was shot in Tijuana, but the vast majority was obviously filmed on Universal's backlot, the movie's police station/courthouse later famously reused in the Back to the Future trilogy. The unreality of Border Town and its dearth of Spanish and Mexican people borders on the surreal.

It's a little sad seeing Gloria Grahame, so recently in major noirs like In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Big Heat (1953), so wasted in this, playing such an outrageous genre cliché spouting terrible dialogue that it's almost like watching Catherine O'Hara in an SCTV spoof. The supporting cast is good, with Max Showalter, Don Haggerty, and a few others in plum roles. Chuck Connors, as Conroy's lieutenant, is so tall, young and sinewy that he looks as much like Conan O'Brien as the Chuck Connors of later work like The Rifleman.

Video & Audio

An early widescreen release, Naked Alibi is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen via a new 2K master that's essentially flawless, as good a presentation as 1950s cropped widescreen gets. The DTS-HD Master audio, mono, is also good. English subtitles accompany this Region "A" disc.

Extra Features

Other than a (textless) trailer, in 1.371:1 full screen, the lone supplement is an audio commentary track by film historian Kat Ellinger. The cover art is reversible.

Parting Thoughts

Worth seeing if only for Sterling Hayden's performance, one that rises far above the material, and for its sparkling high-def transfer, but Naked Alibi, as film noir goes, is below average. Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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