Tuesday, December 18, 2001

ALIBI (1929)

Caution: Spoilers follow!
As a Chester Morris fan, I was happy to be able to see this very early taklie. Roland West, who directed THE BAT WHISPERS, did this nifty little gangster film. Some critics have said it contains elements of German Expressionism, but I think that's probably going too far. The sets do incorporate a lot of art-deco geometric shapes, but the kind of atmosphere I associate with CALIGARI is only really present here at the very beginning and the very end.

Chester Morris plays a suave gangster who gets out of jail, claims to be going straight, and hooks up with a policeman's daughter (Mae Busch). The cops, especially Pat O'Malley, who is sweet on Mae himself, suspect that Morris is involved in the murder of a policeman, but he has what seems to be an airtight alibi--he was with Mae and another couple at a theater at the time of the murder. We get strung along for a while, but eventually we find out that he is indeed guilty of the murder. The rest of the movie is Morris trying to avoid suspicion, and then capture. Regis Toomey plays a drunken stockbroker who turns out to be working undercover for the cops. His drunk act is just that, but nonetheless, it quickly gets irritating. There is no background music (except some bizarre out-of-nowhere hymm during a protracted death scene) but there are some flashy musical numbers: one with high-kicking dancing girls on stage, and one in a nightclub with a girl holding a hand mirror at crotch level, shining light onto Toomey's face.

Much of the film, especially when it involves dialogue, is as static and stagy as other films of the time, but a few setpieces at the beginning and end involve some nice camerawork, including a memorable shot of a character leaping from one tall building to the next, but missing and falling to his death. Morris is good (he was nominated for an Academy Award, as was the movie); his best scene is when he turns desperately yellow when he thinks he's trapped. His angular nose and jaw fit in nicely with the art-deco set design! Mae Busch is not very good at all; she slows down everyscene she's in. Parts of it are quite slow moving; I wondered what Warner Brothers would have done with it a few years later. It certainly would be shorter and much more quickly paced, but they also would probably have replaced Morris with Cagney.

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