In 1929, film was still in its infancy, diapers and all. You wouldn’t get upset at a baby for drooling on your shirt or making its business, that’s just what happens. So when you watch Alibi and the film is extremely grainy or lines were barely picked up by a microphone, you have to be patient and keep open. The modern gangster films were sprung from the foundation set by Ronald West’s Alibi.
The film begins after Chick Williams (Chester Morris) is released from jail he returns to his gang and picks up a new girl, Joan (Eleanor Griffith). As if Chick seeing the sergeant’s daughter didn’t keep him near trouble enough, soon he’s suspected of murdering a policeman during a robbery. But he’s got an alibi, he was at the theater with Joan that night with tickets to prove it. The police still keep Chick under suspicion and send and undercover agent (Regis Toomey) to gain favor within the gang.
One of the most memorable scenes of Alibi is when Soft Malone, a cab driver, is being interrogated by two policemen. They yell at him, ask him over and over for a name and even allude that they can make him just disappear. Then there’s this uneasy silence, the two officers whisper in the back corner and at the fogged glass door to Malone’s left is a mysterious figure. That ghostly image has got to be one of the most unsettling thing I’ve ever seen on film. All you can see is his face and a brimmed hat staring straight ahead completely void of emotion like a statue. Is this the man who can make Malone disappear if he doesn’t talk? The best part is, we never find out.
Alibi contributed a lot to the early gangster film. There’s an exciting car chase, the good cop-bad cop routine, the use of a planted undercover agent and we get to watch the detective work figure out a hole in Chick’s alibi. There’s even a moment where people have to wear masks when identifying suspects, I assume one-way glass was yet to be invented. But that death scene is one to roll your eyes to. You’d think that at least one of those cops would go after the shooter, but no, they all have to cradle around to hear his last words. And he’s pretty long winded for just being shot, but I guess that was the style of death scenes. Today we just pop ‘em in the head and that’s that.
This is definitely a film to add to your movie buff belt. It’s an early talkie that paved the way for all gritty gangster films. But it isn’t for everyone. If you need your technology up to date and actors who haven’t been dead for decades, you’re better off skipping this.
“Now you keep out of this, this is a police affair.” “I’m going to make it my affair.”