The first half hour of Naked Alibi–the film runs just under ninety minutes so the entire first third–is separate from the remainder. Set in a small city (shot on the backlot, but rather well thanks to Russell Metty’s glorious photography), chief of detectives Sterling Hayden has been getting a lot of heat over police brutality. The bleeding hearts just don’t understand how hard it can be. Not even after someone starts killing cops.
The film is really, really spare. There’s not just no fat on the script, there’s not always enough meat. So there’s no reconciliation between police commissioner Fay Roope riding Hayden for police brutality–even though Hayden’s tactics appear just to be due process and self-defense–with Hayden’s inability to catch the cop killers. Hayden’s got a prime suspect–local baker Gene Barry, who threatened the lives of each of the murdered cops. But Barry says he’s a good guy and everyone (meaning wife Marcia Henderson and lawyer Paul Levitt) agrees.
Of course, Barry’s exceptionally suspicious, has no real alibi for the murders–it’s never clear why his alibi is Naked–and appears to be at least psychologically abusive to Henderson. It turns out she’s the luckier of his two ladies, but more on that development in a bit.
The first half hour introduces Barry, introduces Hayden, introduces the cops, kills the cops, starts Hayden’s investigation, fires Hayden, brings in P.I. Don Haggerty to assist Hayden in an off-the-books investigation, and ends with Barry running off to the Mexican border to destress.
Barry’s not just suspicious, he’s violent, controlling, and manipulative. Though the manipulative stuff doesn’t really work because he’s not coy about it. He manipulates through violence and enforced control. The script asks way too much in the way of disbelief suspension. Director Hopper is no help with it either. For whatever reason, he can’t direct interiors. He does the most boring composition inside. Outside, Naked Alibi looks great. Inside, it’s a complete yawn.
Worse, he’s got forceful performances from both Barry and Hayden and doesn’t showcase them in those boring interior scenes either. There’s all this energy present, with Hopper seemingly disinterested in framing it well.
When the film gets to the Mexican border, there are big changes. The exterior shots are even better–Tijuana stands in for “Border City”–with these deeply composed shots. Metty’s photography gets even better and the script slows down enough and focuses; it doesn’t matter if Hopper doesn’t direct exposition or banter well.
Gloria Grahame plays a nightclub singer who Barry romances, terrorizes, and physically abuses. No longer trying to play evil but nice and instead just evil, Barry is terrifying. Especially since things never go Hayden’s way. He’s not particularly good at the detective stuff and he’s got the street smarts of a three-card monte mark. He’s just right.
But Grahame ends up being the closest thing to a main character. She gets the most character development, which Grahame ends up essaying far better than the film deserves. By the end, the script’s caught up with her and holds her back, but for a while, Grahame transcends the spare, sometimes lazy material.
The filmmaking and acting make Naked Alibi. The script’s got a decent enough detective investigation, but very little else. The finale is–while extremely effective and beautifully shot–a complete disappointment. There’s been no character development on Hayden. He’s not a cipher, he’s a blank. Hayden brings a lot of righteousness and enough hints of charm to it, but there’s nothing there. Whether he’s succeeding, failing, or bleeding to death, Hayden’s always exactly the same.
Grahame’s got stuff going on under the surface, Barry’s just getting more and more dangerous. And there’s really no one else. There are some recurring supporting cast members–Chuck Connors, Billy Chapin–but they don’t have much to do. Naked Alibi doesn’t need them to do much. It’s got one thing; reveal Barry enough Hayden can arrest him.
Things get really good about an hour in and it seems like Naked Alibi might add up in the end. Plotting overcomes problematic scene details. Then the finale disappoints, even though it features Hopper’s best direction (of an action sequence anyway), and is beautifully shot.
Still, it’s an engaging noir, with good (but unfortunately uneven thanks to the script and Hopper) performances. And it’s got that Russell Metty photography. Hopper’s direction doesn’t deserve that photography.
Directed by Jerry Hopper; screenplay by Lawrence Roman, based on a story by J. Robert Bren and Gladys Atwater; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Al Clark; produced by Ross Hunter; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Sterling Hayden (Joe Conroy), Gloria Grahame (Marianna), Gene Barry (Al Willis), Marcia Henderson (Helen Willis), Don Haggerty (Matthews), Billy Chapin (Petey), Max Showalter (Det. Lt. Parks), Chuck Connors (Capt. Kincaide), Stuart Randall (Chief Babcock), Paul Levitt (Frazier), and Fay Roope (Commissioner O’Day).