Directed by Jerry Hopper, Naked Alibi is a meat-and-potatoes film noir from 1954. This isn’t a particular great movie, but it does have a workhorse quality and the Lawrence Roman screenplay adapts Gladys Atwater’s “Cry Copper” story with tight-lipped poise. It sticks its three main characters in a searing potboiler and lets things cook, dark shadows and sordid border clubs and all.
Cinematographer Russell Metty works his way through the alleyways and rooftops and interiors with a nose for the dusky corners. There are some interesting and bizarre touches, like his capturing of the crude architecture inside the cop shop and the disguised Tijuana known as Border Town in Hopper’s universe.
Gene Barry stars as Al Willis, a baker and family man picked up by the fuzz for a drunk and disorderly charge. The cops rough him up a bit and he threatens them. After his release, three cops show up dead. Chief Joe Conroy (Sterling Hayden) suspects Willis, but the man pleads innocent. His wife Helen (Marcia Henderson) bolsters his case, but Conroy is sure he has his man.
Conroy is fired after he roughs up Willis, but that doesn’t stop him. He teams up with a private investigator (Don Haggerty) and keeps on tracking the guy. One day, Willis tells his lady that he has to go away for a while. He heads to Border City and Conroy is on his tail. He discovers that Willis isn’t the innocent baker he’s been playing house as up north.
Gloria Grahame is the third piece of this puzzle. She plays Willis’ Border Town mistress Marianna. She’s a troubled nightclub singer and Al smacks her around. When Conroy is set upon by thugs, little Petey (Billy Chapin) hauls him over to Marianna’s place to recover. As is typically the case in these sorts of pictures, everyone knows something and it isn’t long before a violent love triangle takes shape.
Grahame is interesting here and history is written on her face. When she’s introduced, she slinks around the bar in a stubborn dance that suggests something’s not quite right. She handles the boozehounds just fine, but there’s an intrinsic darkness. She’s seen some long nights.
But his obsession is all-consuming and Hopper does well to keep the audience in the dark for the first third of the picture. Hayden is miles-tall as the cop and straight as an arrow, but there’s something about his tactics that suggests a ruthless side.
Barry plays a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the suburban home life counteracting the monster he turns into when he hits the depravity of Border City. He’s pure id when he escapes the flour and sugar of normal existence and his animalistic frothing swings the audience’s favour back to Conroy’s two-fisted law and order.
Naked Alibi plays the vigilante routine, sending Hayden’s character to the squalid side of the street to get his man. The movie is at its best when it has the audience questioning Conroy’s tactics, but it gives up the ghost too early and provides too much information about the real Al Willis. By letting the viewer see behind closed doors, it removes doubt and vindicates the heat.
There are many slugfests in Naked Alibi and there are hints of sex, like when Grahame snacks on Hayden’s chin, but it’s hard to argue that Hopper really turns up the temperature. While the elements are in play for something special, the picture doesn’t rise above its mundanity. It’s an ordinary affair, but it still sustains like a tough steak at a roadhouse diner.