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it use of sound, with art direction by none other than William Cameron Menzies, and disappointing that the film is so outdated in its narrative and  acting, which is very much in the style of the silent’s, that is exaggerated to compensate for the lack of sound.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.

***