Police Power: Naked Alibi (1953) & Suddenly (1954)

Posted by Charles Reece, April 23, 2012 01:51am | Post a Comment
It's film noir festival time again at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. First up for me was a Sterling Hayden double-feature. 

Hayden plays a totalitarian-minded chief detective whose brutal methods are currently being investigated by bureaucrats intent on making crime easier and policing harder. Dwelling in the loopholes of law and order, these hobgoblins are always the real villains in films with the ultimate goal of undermining what namby-pamby liberal types call checks and balances that are supposed to keep our country from being a police state: elected officials, lawyers and, of course, the press. Against the knee-jerks, the film suggests that the chief's mind is like a vast differential engine, intuiting the deterministic equations in the chaos of criminality where a wavering eyebrow inevitably leads to multiple homicides -- imagine a cross between Harry Callahan and the precogs from Philip K. Dick's The Minority Report. When he tries to explain how he knows that a church-going, family-oriented baker is a copkiller despite having solid character witnesses, airtight alibis and no priors, a fellow detective looks about as comprehending as a neanderthal hearing the obelisk play Ligeti for the first time. Rational deduction becomes mystical, a voodoo conjuring best left to the professional witchdoctors. The audience is assured of the chief's preternatural acumen when Gloria Grahame shows up as the baker's girlfriend in a border town. Anyone who's watched enough film noir knows that dating her means you're guilty of something and will soon die for what you've done. Had this film been made today, it most likely would've been about police brutality and the dangers of trusting those in power, but because it has Joseph Breen's stamp of approval, the "criminals" had to be punished and "cop" was mutually exclusive to "evil." Which means that'll you'll enjoy the film if you tend to wax nostalgic for 1930s Italy or lean left with a masochistic sense of humor.

Frank Sinatra, with his scarred jawline very much on a display, plays the military-trained leader of a three men assassination team who have been paid to kill the president when he makes a brief layover in the small town of Suddenly. (Normally, such an evil scar would give the villain away, but the town has such a seedy, greasy-looking, chipped-tooth pinhead of a deputy that Barney Fife and Andy Brennan could pass for Ponch and Jon there. Tim Carey cuts a more heroic profile.) The most strategic position from which to fire Sinatra's sniper rifle is in a house on top of a hill overlooking the train station where the president is to stop. A former secret service agent, Pop Benson, owns the house, living with his widowed daughter-in-law, Ellen, and her son, Pidge. The husband died in the war. Because of this, she won't allow the kid to play with guns of any sort, even toys. Pidge suffers taunts at school, not from his name, but because his mom won't let him participate in playful acts of violence. Pops does his best to encourage masculinity in Pidge by having him watch baseball, but there's still something missing. Fearing that the child will turn out a sissy, Ellen's spurned lover (because she can't let go of her dead husband) the Sheriff (Hayden) buys Pidge a cap-gun revolver. Shortly thereafter, Sinatra and his cohorts show up with forged credentials posing as FBI agents in order to temporarily requisition the house so as to "protect" the president. Their real plan is discovered when the Sheriff and a secret service agent arrive, resulting in the former being wounded and the latter killed. Through a bit of derring-do on the part of Pidge, the toy revolver is exchanged for Pop's real one, which happens to look just like the toy. Some more plot happens until the gun falls into Ellen's hands, at which point she comes to realize what all the men in her life have known: the symbolic phallus is very important for our collective survival. Whereas Naked Alibi was something like J. Edgar's wet dream of trusting only certain men to hold phallic authority, Suddenly is more of a pro-militia, NRA-styled argument for everyone, even women, being prepared, because you never know who you can trust.

Relevant Tags

Fascism (3), Naked Alibi (1), Sterling Hayden (3), Film Noir (50), Suddenly (1), Police State (1)