Alibi (1929) Roland West

“Alibi” is a early American film sound film that attempted to do more with the new invention of sound than just let its actors speak. Directed by Roland West the film opens with the credits in total silence. My first thought was what is wrong? However when the film proper starts we are introduced to an innovative use of sound that must have thrilled audiences back in those early days of 1929. We are in a prison and the camera is focused on prisoner marching, their feet seemingly pounding on the pavement.  The camera cuts to a prison guard beating his nightstick on the cement wall behind him in a rhythmic beat. More prisoners exit their cells marching, the shoes loudly proclaiming each step taken.  We cut to the warden’s office where Chick Williams (Chester Morris) is about to be released from jail. Here is the second piece of what makes this film interesting, the art direction. The warden’s office is bathed in sunshine coming from a window situated high up. The large room is stark, empty except for a desk. From there we cut to nightclub. West camera is amazingly mobile moving fluidly down and through the wide halls of the art deco styled club.

It is an amazingly stylistic opening, sophisticated beyond most films of the period. Unfortunately from this point on the film begins to go downhill. The script is creaky and  the acting by some cast members verges on laughable. One character’s performance,  a young Regis Toomey is unbelievably bad. His death scene is a dragged out affair as he says goodbye to everyone that you find yourself begging  for him to just croak and end our misery as well as his own.

As a result, “Alibi” is a film that turns out be both impressive and a disappointment. Impressive in it use of sound, with art direction by none other than William Cameron Menzies, and disappointing that the film is so outdated in its narrative and  acting, which is very much in the style of the silent’s, that is exaggerated to compensate for the lack of sound. However, with sound it just appears like everyone is over acting. Chester Morris who would go on to star in many films including about a dozen Boston Blackie B films stars, along with Mae Marsh, was nominated for an Oscar for his role.    

There is a decent rooftop chase toward the end of the film that is done well. Rooftop chase scenes were actually a  common motif in West films (See The Bat and The Bat Whisper) as was character leading double lives such a Morris’ character before he is exposed for the criminal he is.

,”Alibi” is a must watch for the impressive opening fifteen minutes or so, the visual aspects are stunning with their debt to German Expressionism, and in truth the film is not so long (about 83 mins.) that watching the rest is too much of a challenge.

***

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6 comments on “Alibi (1929) Roland West

  1. Alibi is really just a dry run for the staggering camerawork of the widescreen THE BAT WHISPERS. Its story is manipulative and reactionary in a way with its “once a criminal, always a criminal” attitude that asserts itself after initially making us feel like the Morris character is being unfairly treated by the cops. I could admire what West was trying to do but the film left a bad taste with me.

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    • John Greco says:

      The police were portrayed just about as unsavory as the crooks, especially Morris’ father-in-law.
      I have not seen THE BAT WHISPERS in many years and really don’t remember it. After watching this , I would not mind watching it again.

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  2. Judy says:

    This sounds really interesting – you make the opening sound very powerful. I think I’ve only seen Regis Toomey in Wellman’s ‘Other Men’s Women’, where he isn’t too bad. However, I have noticed that silent-style acting you describe in some of the early talkies I’ve seen too. I suppose it took time for the actors to make the change in style, but, as you say, it can come across as overacting.

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    • John Greco says:

      Judy, the opening is the most interesting part of the film. The other interesting factor and Samuel in his comment reminded me of this, the police are really portrayed as being just as bad as the criminal’s. Chester Morris’ father-in-law does not believe that he has reformed and is blantantly against him. Later on, the police are seen interrogating, forcing false information from a hood (Toomey.) An adventurous film for its time, too bad, it was better.

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  3. Nicolas Aneiros says:

    That much about disparaged dying scene is actually a slower and more vulnerable take on dying to which modern audiences have grown unaccustomed to. Perhaps the sensibility to the passing of a life was more genuinely felt in that earlier era than in our modern times. In this particular scene there is a sense of innocence that manages to show through in spite of the sordid subject matter involved of gangsters and corrupt police work. As over dramatization goes it could have been much worse. It always strikes me as peculiar that in spite of all the technological advances in cinema and other venues of entertainment and technologies people continue to live their lives in that ‘too fast paced” tempo of old motion pictures. Almost cartoon-like and with an apparent aversion to slowing down and taking it all in.

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    • John Greco says:

      Nicolas, some good points you make here but I found this particular scene just a bit much. People died in other films of the same era “Little Cesar” and “The Public Enemy” to name two, without the farewell to everyone roll call that Toomey does here.

      I do agree with you on “cartoon-like and with apparent aversion to slowing down and taking it all in” syndrome in many of todays films. Thanks much for your thoughts!!

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