Title: Suspended Alibi
When:2 February 2004 – 2:00am
As the film Suspended Alibi opens, all seems well in the household of Paul Pearson (played by a wooden Patrick Holt). Their house is large and attractive, situated in a leafy suburb that seems green even when viewed on black and white film. Lynn, his attractive if stuffy wife (played by Honor Blackman) sits on the couch wearing a starched dress and a concete hairdo.
Withing minutes of the film starting, she is screaming unconvincingly as her young son dangles a worm in front of her. I’ve seen Ms Blackman do much better in other films so I’m going to blame the script and direction for her passionless performance in this one.
But this peacefull if dull existence is not all it seems. Paul, a newspaper editor, has been having an affair with Diana, his fashion reporter (played by Naomi Chance, who manages to act around some terrible lines). So – right at the start of the film we discover that the central character, the one we are presumably meant to be cheering for, is a cheating cad. Mind you, given the bland stiffness of his wife Lynn throughout most of this film, who can blame him?
Watching the old, usually black and white movies that the ABC screens in the wee small hours of the morning has become a semi-regular event for me. As a rule, the films are not high-profile classics, or even unknown gems, but third-rate films that have vanished from the minds all but the most fastidious of cinephiles.
It’s hard to say why some films culturally vanish, even if they were successful when released. Often these films appeal to concerns that no longer exist, or exploit senses of humour that are no longer funny (the endless Norman Wisdom films for example). Many seem so awful or weak that it’s difficult to believe they ever had an appreciative audience, and perhaps they didn’t. Yet someone somewhere is making crisp new telecines of these forgotten films, and the ABC is broadcasting them for night-owls like myself to watch. And so I do.
But back to Suspended Alibi. We soon discover that Paul, despite the dreariness of his marriage, has decided he is still in love with his prim and proper wife and has been trying to break off the affair with Diana for three months. Alas, Diana wants to continue the affair – heaven knows why, Paul seems about as passionate as the worm his son found in the pot plant, and about as morally developed.
The strumpet Diana telephones Paul at home, much to his understated discomfort, and he leaves the house to call her back from a pay phone. You see, not only does Paul have to worry about his wife or son overhearing him, but his home phone is what the film refers to as a “party line”, it is shared with a neighbour across the street. Given the way everyone just accepts this situation I can only assume it was not that uncommon in the mid 1950’s – but the thought of sharing a phone line with a neighbour gives me the willies.
Anyway we quickly discover that this neighbour is, of course, a nosey old woman named Mrs Beamster, complete with a stereotypical emasculated husband. She has become an expert in “accidentally” picking up the phone and listening in on Paul’s phone conversations, while also peering out the window at her neighbour’s comings and goings, so she knows all about his affairs. She also seems to take a certain pleasure in expressing her outrage to her newspaper-reading husband, whose own calm and long-suffering demeanor must surely conceal a secret desire to dash his wife’s brains out with a brick.
Meanwhile, Paul has returned home from the phone box after arranging to meet his soon-to-be-ex-lover elsewhere, and discovers that his young son has acquired a knife in a trade at school. It’s not a boy’s pocket knife, but a large Rambo-style don’t-push-it-or-I’ll-give-you-a-wound-you-won’t-believe kind of knife (what on Earth did the boy trade for such a weapon? A handful of Lolly Teeth?). Instead of recoiling in horror at the sight of his son with a shining blade as long as the child’s forearm, or taking his kid to see a shrink as any modern parent would, Paul simply takes the knife away with a friendly “We wouldn’t want your mother to see this would we?”.
Paul heads off to see his mistress after making the lame excuse to Lynn that he is going to his friend Bill’s hotel room for a night of cards and gambling. Is this supposed to be an acceptable cover story?! Are we supposed to like this guy?
For some reason, Paul takes his son’s elephant-gutting knife with him to break up with his mistress. Why? When he first drops by Bill’s place (for a more convincing alibi if anyone should check), even Bill asks him what he’s bringing the knife for. “Maybe to scare her a little” is Paul’s reply. Eh? Again I ask, are we supposed to like this guy?
Not that Bill is much better – when he cheerily takes the knife from Paul he says “Black both her eyes if you must, but this I can’t allow”. Nice guy. Try and figure out his moral code if you can. So after reluctantly leaving the knife behind with Bill, Paul heads off to see Diana for the last time.
I won’t cover the stilted conversation between Paul and his disgruntled mistress, except to say that as breakups go it doesn’t get much more well-mannered than this – no screaming, no hurling of vases, no I’m-going-to-kill-you-you-pathetic-twerp. Just more stiff acting and unlikely dialogue. I refuse to believe that people ever spoke this way to each other, even in 1956.
Things get a bit more heated when Diana briefly threatens to tell Paul’s wife about the affair. Paul’s gentlemanly response is delivered slowly through gritted teeth, “If you were to try and bust up our marriage, why I think I would kill you”. Realising she has gone too far for this tightly wound psycho, the mistress counters with an uneasy “Paul, can’t you tell when a person is joking?”. Doubtless she is inwardly thankful that she is finished with this selfish bully.
Meanwhile, back at Bill’s flat, a card game is in progress between Bill and Waller, the chap from across the hall. Lynn calls Bill to see if hubby Paul is there (she suspects something!). But Bill loyally lies that all is well and hubby is not carrying on with an employee, merely gambling away his son’s university tuition. Relieved, Lynn hangs up.
While on the phone Bill spots Waller stealing cards from the deck in the most open and foolish display of cheating ever committed to film. Accusations are made in clipped tones, a poorly choreographed fight occurs, leading to Waller grabbing Paul’s large knife and stabbing his host. Actually no, that’s not right. What actually happens is that Waller grabs the knife and Bill walks into it. Quite slowly. Bill clearly had a death wish. He gives a subdued reaction to being stabbed in the ribs – “That was a damn silly thing to do” he says. Showing remarkable consideration and neatness, Bill makes it to his desk and sits down before quickly dying.
Soon Scotland yard enters the picture, represented by Valentine Dyall. I have a soft spot for Mr Dyall as his distractingly deep voice brings back fond memories of old BBC radio shows and terrible Spike Milligan films, but he is hopelessly miscast and/or misdirected here (or else he’s a really bad actor). Sure, most of the performances in this film are stiff and unemotive, barely moving from the neck down, but Dyall’s performance makes the other cast members look like excited continentals.
Watching this tall man stride quickly into rooms and abruptly stop, delivering his lines in that window-rattling deep voice while standing as motionless as a particularly gnarled oak tree reminded me of the deliberately silly way Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan loped around in their short film The Great Muckinese Battle Horn – only in Suspended Alibi the filmmakers aren’t intentionally going for laughs.
Paul finally comes clean about his affair only when he is confronted with incriminating evidence linking him to Bill’s murder. So, sitting in his living room in front of one of his own reporters, the police, and his wife he blurts out the truth of where he really was and why. Lynn’s reaction to finding out about the affair goes well beyond British understatement and right into self-satire – “Paul, why didn’t you tell me?”, she says in a small hurt voice. Then she sits and says, “Darling”. That’s it. She never mentions the affair again. No recriminations, no hostility, no staying up all night discussing it endlessly, nothing. All is instantly forgiven. This weakens Lynn’s character to the point of farce.
This film is so silly and inconsequential that it wasn’t till it was finished that I truly realised just how ugly the central character was. Throughout the film Paul, our hero, is well spoken and well mannered, but he’s a moral vacuum who is innocent only of the central murder, while actually being guilty of so many other things.
The film moves along at a reasonably quick pace for the era it was made (and it only runs about an hour), though it’s hard to give a damn about the characters as they frequently behave in ways that make little sense. For example, the mistress, Diana, obliglingly lets the murderous Waller into her home, even though she’s never met him before, then proceeds to tell him that none of her neighbours would be able to hear raised voices from her flat, then hands over the only evidence that could confirm Paul’s alibi apart from her own testimony, and then even confirms that no one else knows about the evidence. Not surprisingly, Waller promptly picks her up and tosses her out of her top-floor window.
After that things plod along. The film features the world’s cheapest court-room scenes for the actual trial – a few shots of the justice statue on top of the court house and a nightmarish montage of voices from the trial played over Honor Blackman tossing and turning in bed (about as close to acting as she gets in this film).
I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it implausibly involves a priest and an extendable pencil (and it’s not as interesting as that may sound).
I think we can learn a lot from watching old films, even bad ones. We can see, through the distorted lens of what filmmakers were able to produce, how attitudes have changed towards women, violence, smoking, alcohol, marriage, sex, murder, politics, and of course filmmaking. Even those safe, boring second-feature films churned out by Britain for several decades usually contain a few surprises here and there – it’s like going through the contents of a time capsule and amongst all the heartfelt messages and earnest poetry you discover a whoopie cushion.
The most interesting parts of Suspended Alibi are when it ventures outside the studio. I found some of the shots of a now-vanished England fascinating. The leafy middle-class suburbs, the crowded train station at night, the view out the taxi window as the murderer races to escape. Part of what makes these shots so interesting is that they look as if they were shot with minimal or no extra lighting, giving them a reality sorely lacking in the rest of the film’s consistently even and high-key studio lighting. There aren’t many of these moments, but they make an othewise unremarkable film watchable, at least for me.
|Some images of 1950s England||Major plot holes
Plot stupidities aplenty
Mostly boring cinematography