Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dark Alibi (Monogram, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Dark Alibi, the eighth in the Monogram Charlie Chan series — you’ll recall that after Castle in the Desert in 1942 20th Century-Fox had decided the Charlie Chan movies had run their course and Chan remained off the screen for two years. During that time, the rights to the Chan character reverted to the estate of his creator, Earl Derr Biggers, who had died in 1933. Sidney Toler, who had starred in the later Fox Chans, negotiated with Biggers’ widow to buy the rights to the Chan character and see if any other studio wanted to produce Chan films. All the other majors passed, but Monogram Pictures bit and in 1944 launched their own Chan series with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, all too accurately described by William K. Everson as “a tedious and talkative film with a dreary musical score.”

Fortunately, the films got a little better as the series progressed — especially after the usual director, Phil Rosen, got replaced, sometimes by people with even hackier reputations (like Lesley Selander) but sometimes — as in Dark Alibi — by someone considerably better: Phil Karlson, who would later direct Marilyn Monroe in her first starring role (the 1948 “B” musical Ladies of the Chorus) and get a better performance out of her than some of her later, more prestigious directors; and still later would make quality noirs like Kansas City Confidential. Karlson’s work here is quite good — especially a wordless, atmospheric opening scene showing a gang of bank robbers breaking into a vault and blowing it open, and later two long sequences set in a deserted theatrical warehouse — though the print we were watching (a download from archive.org) was too murky to do these scenes justice: Karlson and his cinematographer, William A. Sickner, no doubt intended them to be dark and atmospheric but I don’t think they were supposed to be this dark and atmospheric!

The film’s plot (by George Callahan, Monogram’s usual go-to guy for Chan scripts) is also better than usual: Thomas Harley (Edward Earle) is arrested at the boarding house where he lives with his daughter June (Teala Loring), charged with the bank robbery we witnessed in the opening scene, and since a bank guard who discovered the robbers was murdered he’s charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to die. Part of the case against him is that he’s an ex-con — though he hadn’t committed a crime in 20 years and his daughter had no idea that he’d ever served time (he was in prison when her mother died giving birth to her, and when he got out he picked her up from her foster parents and raised her without ever telling her he had a criminal record) — but the main piece of evidence is that his fingerprints were found on the scene. With just nine days remaining before his execution, his daughter accidentally meets Charlie Chan and Chan agrees to take the case and see if he can exonerate her father — which in the days of DNA testing and the Innocence Project seems like a quite fresh storyline even though it’s also old enough there are probably cave drawings telling it.

By this time Monogram was also selling the Chan films to theatres in Black communities on the strength of Mantan Moreland’s recurring role as Chan’s chauffeur, Birmingham Brown, and though he’s playing the usual Black scaredy-cat stereotype he’s several cuts above the torpor of Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best; one highlight of the film is the three double-talk dialogues Moreland does with Ben Carter, another Black comedian who plays Moreland’s brother, a convict in States Prison where Chan, his son Tommy (Benson Fong — presumably his Number Three Son since Keye Luke played Number One Son in the Warner Oland Chans and Victor Sen Yung was Number Two Son in the later Fox Chans with Toler) and Brown are visiting to try to solve the case. Chan traces the whole thing to a variety of intriguing characters, including Miss Petrie (Janet Shaw), an embittered woman who lives at the boarding house with the Harleys; her husband (she carefully went by “Miss” and her maiden name so no one would suspect she was married to a convict), Jack Slade (Anthony Warde); Mr. Danvers (Ray Walker), a glad-handing salesman who makes bank security equipment and therefore could presumably figure out a way to break through his own system and enter a bank unmolested; and a surprise mastermind who has a position inside the prison and is using it to engineer the whole scheme, which involves a successful way of faking someone else’s fingerprints and planting them on the scene of a crime.

Chan discovers at least two other people have been wrongfully convicted of bank heists in this fashion — though both are already dead; one died in a prison accident and one committed suicide — and in an interesting climax the finger of suspicion seems first to be pointing to the prison warden (Russell Hicks), not surprisingly since it was almost always the tendency of Monogram’s casting department to cast portly middle-aged men as their murderers: but in a legitimate and genuinely surprising twist turns out to be someone else altogether. There’s also a nice little red herring at the boarding house played by Milton Parsons, the fascinating character actor who was in three of RKO’s four contemporaneous Dick Tracy movies. Dark Alibi has some pretty lurching transitions — most of Mantan Moreland’s comedy is genuinely funny but the constant cutaways from the mystery and action so he and Carter can do their dialogue gags are a bit wrenching after a while (though there’s a nice payoff at the end when Toler as Chan joins into one of their double-talk scenes and fits right in) — but overall it’s a nicely done film, burdened with a few typical Monogram plot holes (the night of the robbery Thomas Harley is locked inside a theatrical warehouse to which he’s been lured by a typewritten message signed with the name of a man who served time at States Prison when Harley did but has been dead for eight years; whoever concocted the plot would have to have known that Harley hadn’t heard of the man’s death for the trap to work) but quite entertaining and several cuts above the common run of the Monogram Chans.