Thursday, March 21, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Alibi (1929)

Back with another super old-school Best Picture nominee to talk about in this installment of the Oscar Film Journal....

Yup, I'm still toiling in the Roarin' 20s, with a second-year nominee from 1929, Roland West's gangster film Alibi, starring Chester Morris and Mae Busch.  This very clunky early talkie centers around a mobster named Chick Williams, who's just been released from prison and elopes with his sweetheart Joan.  Joan's father and suitor are both high-ranking cops hell-bent on taking Chick down.  One night a robbery takes place at a warehouse during which a policeman gets shot, and Joan's father Pete and her jealous would-be fiancĂ© detective Tommy Glennon decide to do whatever it takes to pin the crime on Chick, despite Chick's seemingly airtight alibi.  The film plays with our sympathies as the story unfolds, presenting the police as immoral and crooked, and willing to intimidate or even torture a witness to get a confession, but later we realize the charismatic Chick Williams perhaps isn't the police harassment victim we were led to believe he is.  And poor Joan is caught in the middle of all these weak, angry men and their schemes.
Thematically this film is pretty far ahead of its time; depicting the police as corrupt and bullying was pretty rare for the  period, although prior to the implementation of the dreadful Hays Code movies had a lot more leeway for this sort of moral ambiguity.  At the outset it seems Williams is far from the murderous monster the police insist he is, and it seems like the prison term he just served was a frame-up job.  Likewise the lead female character being pulled in two different directions by her domineering lawman father and her suave, charming criminal husband makes for a potentially gripping character conundrum.  There's promise in the material.

The problem with Alibi is its execution.  It was 1929 and the limitations of the earliest sound recording equipment more or less crippled filmmakers' ability to present stories in a compelling visual way.  Scenes had to be blocked with flat camera angles and limited movement so the dialogue didn't get lost, and even that didn't always work.  I'd be curious to see a remastered transfer of this film but the one available on YouTube has such poor sound quality I often found it tough to make out the dialogue.  Another interesting trope of the early talkies was the studios' compulsion to add superfluous musical elements to some films; Alibi features numerous scenes where characters are watching a song and dance routine at Chick's favorite night spot.  Visually the most interesting moments are scene transitions where there's no dialogue, allowing the camera some fluidity and freedom.  I think Alibi would've been much more effective as a silent film. 

The performances across the board are also quite hammy.  Film actors imported from the stage were still playing to the cheap seats and many hadn't quite figured out how to internalize for this new medium.  Regis Toomey as undercover cop Danny McGann has to pretend to be a stumbling drunk whenever he's out in public, and he plays it so broadly I can't imagine anyone falling for his ruse.  Purnell Pratt as Sgt. Pete is almost comical in his overbearing menace (Incidentally I recognized Pratt from his turn as the Mayor in A Night at the Opera, proof I've seen way too many movies).

While I'm sure its narrative elements were rather thought-provoking for the time, Alibi suffers the misfortune of being made when filmgoers had lost interest in the exquisite craftsmanship of silent films and demanded to hear the new technology taking the industry by storm.  The poor audio quality robs the viewer of some of the dialogue, while the technical limitations of the era make for a stagnant visual presentation.  It's a mild thumbs down for me.

I give Alibi **1/2 out of ****.

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