ALIBI (director/writer: Roland West; screenwriters: C. Gardner Sullivan/based on the play Nightstick (1927) by John Griffith Wray, Elaine S. Carrington, Elliott Nugent and J. C. Nugent; cinematographer: Ray June; editor: Hal C. Kern; music: Hugo Riesenfeld; cast: Chester Morris (Chick Williams), Harry Stubbs (Buck Bachman), Mae Busch (Daisy Thomas), Eleanore Griffith (Joan Manning); Irma Harrison (Toots, cabaret dancer), Regis Toomey (Danny McGann), Al Hill (Brown, a crook), James Bradbury, Jr. (Blake, a crook), Elmer Ballard (Soft Malone, cab driver), Kernan Cripps (Trask, plainclothesman), Purnell B. Pratt (Pete Manning, police sergeant), Pat O’Malley (Tommy Glennon, detective sergeant), DeWitt Jennings (O’Brien, policeman), Edward Brady (George Stanislaus David); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Joseph M. Schenck; United Artists; 1929)
“The story pales when viewed in modern times and the acting that was thought so wonderful at the time, is simply atrocious by modern standards.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Crime thriller director and producer Roland West (“Corsair”/”The Bat”/”The Bat Whispers”) made ten films during the early days of film, all noted for their creativity, and helms this Best Picture nominated early talkie gangster film (in the second year of the Oscars). It was also nominated for Best Actor (Chester Morris) and Best Art Direction. It’s based on the long-running Broadway play Nightstick (1927) by John Griffith Wray, Elaine S. Carrington, Elliott Nugent and J. C. Nugent; it’s scripted by West and C. Gardner Sullivan. West was influenced by German Expressionism (this film is billed as America’s first expressionistic crime film). West liked to film in complete secrecy at night and have his male villains possess double personalities as both good and bad guys, making them have more shaded personalities than in your typical crime drama. The gals were just pictured as dumb broads, who sometimes meant well.

Alibi is about how a crook uses his unsuspecting honest wife for the almost perfect alibi while he commits a robbery and a murder. The film has a fuzzy moral compass as both the cops and crooks are seen openly operating against the law, with the police using questionable bullying tactics to illicit information that gives one a scare that they’re just as dangerous as the bad guys.

It opens as Prohibition-era hood Chick Williams (Chester Morris) is released from jail and promises to go straight, after serving time because he was framed by the police on a trumped-up charge. The handsome charmer manages to marry bleeding-heart liberal good girl Joan Manning (Eleanore Griffith), the daughter of a gruff police sergeant Pete Manning (Purnell B. Pratt), the cop who framed him in the name of law and order. Joan brushes off the marriage proposal of a so-called nice guy hard-nosed detective sergeant Tommy Glennon (Pat O’Malley) and tells her forlorn poppa that she’ll keep her man Chick on the straight path. Tommy’s her dad’s best friend, and dad goes bonkers when she turns him down for that creep because she doesn’t want to marry a cop (you see, she knows they do unethical things to go after the bad guys and wants no part of that scene).

Chick’s gang robs a fur warehouse and when beat patrolman O’Brien comes upon the heist, Chick shoots him in the back. The hood’s alibi was that he was at the theater with his wife, but there’s five minutes unaccountable–which is when he hopped a cab and committed the deadly crime. His naive wife doesn’t realize the hood is using her, but the police infiltrate the gang through undercover cop Danny McGann (Regis Toomey). He poses as a respectable Wall Street broker, who is always drunk around them and gains their confidence. The police spring a trap for Chick, after breaking down Soft Malone (Elmer Ballard) with strong-arm tactics (indicating a belief in the ends justifying the means, as Tommy threatens to shoot him in the station-house if he doesn’t talk and claims he will say he did so because he was trying to escape). Soft’s a cab driver with connections to the gang, therefore we’re not supposed to care about his civil liberties. Chick discovers Danny’s a cop and plugs him. Danny dies in a risible overdrawn melodramatic death scene, one of cinema’s all-time long death scenes, where Tommy vows to get Chick to avenge Danny as Danny goes on and on uttering his final goodbyes to the boys in blue. Any scene with the ridiculous Toomey in it, dragged the film down into the pits.

The story pales when viewed in modern times and the acting that was thought so wonderful at the time, is simply atrocious by modern standards. Others in the cast who deserve some recognition are Harry Stubbs playing a fat greedy fence for the gang and Mae Busch as Harry’s pushed around stupid free-loading girlfriend. Busch was the only one of the main stars who worked in silent film before (and gives the only natural performance in the film), as all the others made their film debut after having played in the stage production.

Easily the best thing about the film were its captivating set designs, which were created by art director William Cameron Menzies (probably the most gifted production designer of his time). It was a gas taking in Stubbs’ penthouse apartment in his club, comprised of intricate geometric designs on the wallpaper and on the stained-glass doors, and the Art Deco set pieces for the other interior and location shots. Since it was made during the first full year of sound films, it was fascinated with getting all kinds of sound onto the screen and did so by using the MovieTone sound-on-film process. The opening twirling of a beat policeman’s nightstick, the loud banging of the nightsticks against the lampposts to signal a robbery, the clanging sounds of a bell and the prisoners’ floor stomping march for roll call (a ripoff of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis mise-en-scène), were well carried out and gave the film breadth.