1929Director: Roland West
Cast: Eleanore Griffith, Chester Morris, Regis Toomey
ith the eccentric gangster flick Alibi arriving this month on DVD, Kino continues its streak of releasing remarkable early American films that otherwise might be gathering dust in celluloid warehouses. Directed by Roland West, the early talkie represents the small window of time when American playwriting and filmmaking intersected with 20s German expressionism. Adapting the film from the small play Nightstick, West and co-screenwriter C. Gardner Sullivan create a curious and thoroughly captivating hybrid. The final film weaves together elements from the traditional American gangster film and the European avant-garde, while even anticipating character types and visual strategies from American film noir.
The story follows Chick Williams (Chester Morris), a newly released prisoner who claims the police framed him for a crime he did not commit. Meanwhile his girlfriend Joan (Eleanore Toomey) faces threats from her policeman father to drop the scoundrel Chick and marry instead his fellow sergeant Tommy. Joan defends Chick as an honest man, even eloping with him to prove the point that the police intentionally put an innocent man behind bars. But when an officer ends up dead after trying to break up illegal mob activity, Williams becomes the chief suspect. The “alibi” of the title refers to his date at the theater with Joan while the murder took place, though his exact timeline remains shaky.
Hence Joan stands in the middle of a he said-they said conflict between Chick and the police. The plot then unravels into a cynical thesis since neither party tells the truth: the police are corrupt, eager to frame criminals they suspect, and Chick indeed turns out to be the ruthless gangster the police describe. Though seemingly central, Joan amounts to nothing but a pawn within the male-centric plot, a marker for the spectators’ shifting allegiances. Regarding her character and much of the plot’s skeleton as well, Alibi hardly broke new ground, even for a film released in 1929.
The film possesses an unmistakable audacity, however, in both tone and style. In scene after scene, frame after frame, Alibi tests the boundaries of the traditional gangster film. The prisoners march at geometrically exact angles after their cell doors thunderously shut in sync. A central interrogation scene, with its rat-a-tat-tat repetition and overarching shadow in the window, builds a tension that puts to shame modern-day equivalents. One character’s protracted death scene avoids sentiment and nearly mocks itself by celebrating its own lack of feeling. This particular scene effectively pushes the crime-film melodramatics so far that no emotion remains. The art-deco background paintings and back lot bare sets, meanwhile, provide an eerily blank cityscape. The film plays like a James Cagney movie taking place within an Edward Hopper painting.
Alibi, in fact, proves full of unexpected treats. In a performance brilliant for its sheer ludicrousness, Regis Toomey portrays Danny McGann, an undercover officer posing as an inebriated letch to rake in Williams. Toomey alternately plays drunken boor and upright copper with such delicious hamminess that the film becomes unintentionally about McGann. West and his editor also know how to stir up an appropriate level of audience discomfort, alternating the film’s grim violence with a cheeky theater show. Every frame of the film appears unfailingly intentional and focused.
Though Alibi values style over substance, it still holds worth if, for nothing else, marking a precise time in film history. The film, as it exists now, is a rare artifact that encapsulates the intersection of several aesthetics at a time when the talkie was coming into its own. Garnering Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Morris), and Best Art Direction, and deserving even more, Alibi hopefully will now, seventy-eight years after its theatrical release, find its way onto the small screens of modern-day viewers.
Alibi will be available on DVD later this month.
By: Mike D’Allessandro
Published on: 2007-08-20