ALIBI (1929)

Running Time: 91 mins.                      Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: NR

Director: Roland West

Genre: Crime

Country: USA

Language: English

Distributor: United Artists

Cast: Chester Morris, Harry Stubbs, Mae Busch, Eleanor Griffith, Regis Toomey, Purnell Pratt, Irma Harrison

Historical Interest Only.

For me the most interesting aspect of ALIBI is the fact that at this point (1929) the film industries of the US, Britain, Germany and France were equally capable of producing this type of film. The urban crime drama may have been pioneered by the French feuillade whose roots go back to written literature but it was perfected by Lang and the German School. Film Expressionism cried out for the geometrical shapes and dark shadows of the urban setting and the speed of what was just becoming known as ‘modern life’. After all it was only in 1920 that 50% of the American population lived in cities even though the Jeffersonian ideal of the rural ideal was to linger in both film and literature until WW2.

While expressionist lighting was used to tell the quintessential urban tale, the gangster story, in Germany, it was imitated around the world. The most adept imitator was Alfred Hitchcock, a one-time art director who made his first film in Germany. It is important when discussing ALIBI to compare it to Hitchcock’s contemporary effort BLACKMAIL, which was also shot in silent and sound versions. In fact, ALIBI comes off as being vastly inferior. This is because ALIBI’s auteur, Roland West is merely artistic while Hitchcock is an Artist.

The disparity is most evident in the talking portions of ALIBI. There are problems with the sound that look like a compendium of SINGING IN THE RAIN gags. Sound levels vary and people are grouped, presumably to be in close proximity to the microphones. There is even a song in which the vocalist is seen badly lip-synching to what, in the days before mechanical playback, must have been the actual singer off-camera. Hitchcock had a similar problem in that his female lead had a heavy Slavic accent and had to lip sync her entire role, which he pulled off far more effectively.

The overwhelmingly biggest problem in the talking portions of ALIBI is the acting. Screen acting in talking films just hadn’t been done and in this film everyone seems to be counting to three before talking. It’s very off putting. Regis Toomey plays an undercover cop pretending to be a drunken stockbroker referred to as “The Boy Wonder”. He plays it like a grinning idiot with a silly broad smile on his face that seems to have been carved on in imitation of THE MAN WHO LAUGHED. No thought to the idea that he might appear sober and progressively get drunker and drunker, he’s just a full time fool who couldn’t have put over his act to a room full of ten year olds. Chester Morris, who was actually nominated for an Oscar for his performance, changes his demeanor as the role, NOT the character, demands.

Released from prison, after a very effective silent montage, he assumes the leadership of a gang on no authority at all. His showy scene at the end where he becomes a blubbering coward wreaks more of propaganda than drama. Re: All gangsters are yellow. When the undercover cop is discovered he is murdered somewhat inexplicably as knowing they were discovered the gang would have been better advised to get the hell out and not square accounts which would inevitably lead to the electric chair. However the necessities of propaganda required the villains kick the dog to confirm their sinister evil. Toomey has a super hammy drawn out death scene in which he actually wonders out loud why it’s getting dark. The Academy might have thought this scenery eating was just the ticket in talking screen acting but apparently the public hated it and actors had to adapt to the new medium or else new actors untainted by the conventions of the stage were brought in. Again, Hitchcock’s characters are human beings, dualistic and inconsistent, their reactions ambiguous even to themselves. In ALIBI characters are set in stone and lack even free will. They act at the behest of a rigid morality tale whose points are hammered home. The police acquire information by literally pointing a gun at a suspects head not because they are tarred with the same brutal brush as the gangsters but to point out that this is the only way to treat ‘them”.

The settings are over the top as well. Early geometrical deco, adapted from cubist designs and the neo-Mayan decorations of Frank Lloyd Wright (the curvilinear ‘streamlined” deco was to come later) overwhelm the backgrounds. The silent scenes are very well shot. West knows the dramatic power of the dynamically unbalanced frame. Some shots use Caligari-like angles and black and white shadows. There is a high shot of a car coming around a corner and stopping (done twice) which looks like it could have been lifted entirely from Lang. (Also pointing out that as well as their film industries, automobile design hadn’t yet diverged either.) Crowds pass by nighttime city streets as in Murnau. There are successful attempts at process shots and less successful attempts to use sound ‘creatively’. Again, West’s attempts pale beside Hitchcock’s famous ‘knife’ sequence.

As can be found in Roland West’s IMDb biography, when he died he reputedly made a deathbed confession to Chester Morris that he murdered his mistress, Thelma Todd, whose death ended his Hollywood career. Morris and Todd co-starred in West’ last film, CORSAIR (1931), another gangster melodrama. Apparently, unlike Hitchcock or Lang, West became involved in the gangster milieu rather than the cinematic arts.

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