ALIBI (Roland West, 1929)

Until the contrived ending where vicious young gangster Chick Williams turns sickeningly cowardly, Chester Morris gives a crackerjack performance in Roland West’s engrossing, visually exhilarating Alibi. Indeed, one of the things that interferes with our pleasure while we watch this famous film is precisely the play on which it is based: Nightstick, by John Griffith Wray, J.C. Nugent and Elaine S. Carrington—from what we can gather here, a rigidly plotted affair and a sanctimonious, reactionary endorsement of police malfeasance. Another of the film’s liabilities is its wildly inept acting in various roles; Purnell Pratt ridiculously exaggerates one worthless cop, Pete Manning, the father of the girl whom worthless Williams marries, and Regis Toomey gives one of the two or three worst performances I have seen as another cop, this one undercover, who pretends that he is a society drunk in a manner that invites disbelief, but with everyone here apparently falling for his act. Eleanore Griffith plays Joan, Manning’s “rebellious” daughter; she is as good as Morris until the plot turns on her, too, making her character unappealingly conventional. Ultimately, Joan is as worthless as both her father and the cop she walks off with romantically: in my book, two bastards no less vicious than Williams, the purported “bad guy.”
     However, drawing upon German Expressionism and utilizing the stunning Art Deco designs of William Cameron Menzies, the film’s visual aspect enthralls. Shots move forward from the urban streets straight into a nightclub, where a chorus line of girls are kicking up their legs; this movement metamorphoses into a point-of-view shot as a cop car penetrates the area, the urban environment, in an effort to disprove Williams’s alibi for a robbery and murder. Images: a human figure disappears from the frame, leaving his shadow behind; the shadow of a hand is raised. This spooky, suggestive stuff suggests that West was as uncomfortable with the moralistic, cut-and-dried plot as much as I.
     Silent and sound versions once existed. Regrettably, I saw the latter.

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