Dark Alibi (1946) dir. Phil Karlson
Starring: Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Benson Fong, Ben Carter and Teala Loring
By Greg Klymkiw
When 20th Century Fox finally decided to give the Charlie Chan series a rest after several years of excellent product (second features with Grade A treatment), the stalwart poverty row company Monogram Pictures grabbed the franchise's torch and generated a series of ultra-low budget Chan adventures. While there isn't a single Monogram Chan that comes close to the even the most run-of-the-mill Fox productions, I still and will always have a special place in my heart for them. A good part of this fondness might well derive from extremely early childhood memories. For whatever reason, it was the Monogram Chans that played endlessly on the bottom dwelling independent American TV station KCND in Pembina, North Dakota that beamed its wonderful signal into Winnipeg to save us from the mostly execrable two Canadian TV stations we received locally. I didn't actually see the Fox Chans until my early teenage years and by then, the Monograms were firmly entrenched within my movie-absorbent brain and the memories, even then, were always warm and fuzzy.
Looking at the Monograms now, I still love them for the aesthetic elements that comprise virtually every picture in their Chan canon. The stock footage for establishing shots, the perfunctory sets, the small number of interior locations with scenes stretched beyond the limit to keep camera and lighting set-ups to a minimum, the lack of any A-list talent on camera (but some very fine character actors in support) and the clearly sub-par writing; all contribute immeasurably to my enjoyment of them. Not that I laugh derisively or take "guilty" pleasure in seeing Grade-Z production values, but rather, I enjoy them the same way one enjoys comfy old slippers long past their age of, shall we say, freshness.
Call them, if you will, the Kraft Dinner Chans.
Most of these pictures retained the services of Sidney Toler (who so expertly took over the role at Fox from Warner Oland and eventually made it exclusively his own) and when Toler was clearly unable to continue due to cancer, Roland Winters took over for six pictures and while not up to Toler and Oland, at least delivered the strangest interpretation of Chan ever set forth on celluloid.
Dark Alibi is one of the very best Monogram productions. In this episode of the franchise, the venerable sleuth of the Asian persuasion coincidentally happens to be leaving the office of an old pal, a public defender who is assailed by the desperate daughter of an innocent man on death row. What's a Chan to do? Well, of course he needs to help the young lass out. And so begins a race against time as Chuckles needs to save the woman's father AND find the real killer. Chan's theory is that someone has figured out how to forge fingerprints. No mean feat. Will Chan do it? You bet he Chan!!! (Kind of like "Bob the Builder" - YES HE CAN!!!)
Several elements are at play in making this the best Monogram Chan.
First and foremost is the fine direction of Phil Karlson who spent many of his early years toiling in the trenches of Monogram and other Poverty Row studios - delivering genre pictures that were always a cut above the rest. In the 50s, Karlson would go on to direct some of the finest noir crime thrillers ever made - most notably The Phenix City Story, Kansas City Confidential, Scandal Sheet and the especially harrowing 99 River Street. In the 60s he made one of Elvis Presley's best, Kid Galahad, and the following decade he made the great 70s noir Framed and one of the biggest vigilante pictures of all time, the original Walking Tall.
With Dark Alibi, Karlson outdoes himself within the typical Monogram constraints. The numerous dialogue scenes, which in many other hands would have been mind-numbingly dull, are rendered with efficiency and style. Karlson's wide and medium compositions are especially well framed and his blocking is always lively and he keeps the dialogue brisk and crackling. He even manages to pull off two first-rate set-pieces; the opening heist with lots of shadow and key light and a terrific sequence involving an eerie, well-stocked theatricasl supply warehouse. There's also a rip snorting prison shootout which is a definite rarity in Chan mysteries and as such is a welcome bonus.
Secondly, the film has a great sense of humour. The comic rapport between Mantan Moreland (playing Birmingham Brown, Chan's loyal driver and manservant) and Chan's Number Three son, Tommy (Benson Fong) is always lively. The two actors clearly had fun playing off each other and by extension, we enjoy it also. Their routines vary from utterly insane conversations punctuated with Chan's deadpan disapproval of their laziness to the two of them getting into a variety of sticky wickets by ignoring Chan's orders for them to sit still. Moreland, the chubby, almost cherubic African-American comedian with bulging pop-eyes gets to play a few scenes with his equally brilliant straight man Benjamin Brown. Their unfinished sentence routines are especially brilliant displays of coming timing and wisely, Karlson shoots them in a simple medium proscenium which is instinctively the right thing to do, but also a nod to the vaudeville style of their gags.
And on the humour front, no Chan picture can be without the hilarious aphorisms spouted by the wise Asian detective. Dark Alibi is full of them. Some of my favourites in the picture include:
"Ancient proverb say: One small wind can raise much dust."
"Honorable grandmother always say: Do not think of future - it come too soon."
"Remember old saying: Earthquake may shatter the rock, but sand upon which rock stood still right there in same old place."
"Skeletons in closets always speak loudest to police."
"Ugliest trade sometimes have moment of joy. Even gravedigger know some people for whom he would do his work with extreme pleasure."
Of course, all of the above are delivered by Toler with a straight face and full portent in his voice, while with others, one catches that tell-tale Toler eye-twinkle. In either case, they're always knee-slappers.
Chan's witty aphorisms and the antics of Mantan Moreland and Number Three Son are often cited, wrongly, as racist. Uh, this is the 40s. It's a different time and place and as such, reflects said time and place. If one responds positively to the Chan series at all, it seems impossible to me how anyone could take serious exception to any of Chan's aphorisms, his son's laziness and Moreland's hilarious antics and line-readings. If anything, one could charge the films with being ethnocentric, but there is none of the implied hatred inherent in the humour that seems to be a necessary ingredient to label something as racist. The humour is gentle and, in its own cockeyed way, rather respectful of Asian and African-American culture. Moreland in particular is a great comic actor - truly great! Denigrating his style of humour by contemporary standards of political correctness frankly detracts from acknowledging his comic genius. That, for me, is far more offensive than any stereotypes Moreland propagates.
Finally, the third element contributing to the picture's lofty position at the top of the Monogram Chan heap is that the script, while hardly a work of genius, delivers a decent mystery with a genuinely surprising conclusion. It also features the aforementioned fingerprint forgery idea which, as ludicrous as it sounds, actually works in a relatively convincing fashion. It is also endowed with a race-against-time structure that definitely heightens the suspense.
Dark Alibi is a solid Monogram Picture, indeed, and an excellent addition to the studio's contribution to the cinematic Chan canon.
Dark Alibi is part of a four film box set from TCM via Warner Home Entertainment. A wise programming choice was to include Toler's last and Winter's first renderings of the role. The transfers are all decent, but one wonders why so much money was lavished on the handsome packaging of the films in a nice cardboard box with great graphics and no effort put into the uninspired menus and lack of decent extras.