Thursday, July 30, 2009

'Alibi': A Public Enemy Speaks

The recent release of "Public Enemies" starring Johnny Depp brings back memories of an earlier era when gangster movies were the rage.

Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney created memorable characters in "Little Caesar" (1930) and "The Public Enemy" (1931), respectively, and the genre remained healthy throughout the rest of the decade and helped define Warner Brothers during this time. However, while most people today regard the release of "Caesar" as the beginning of this trend, it was a movie the year before that captured the attention of moviegoers and critics.

"Alibi" is largely forgotten today due to its stale, uneven story. But in 1929, at a time when studios were rushing to make sound movies in the wake of "The Jazz Singer," and learning how to do so at the same time, "Alibi" contains some effective scenes that must have dazzled audiences 80 years ago.

The plot is simple: Chick Williams (played by Chester Morris, above), recently released from jail, has the perfect alibi for a warehouse robbery during which a police officer was murdered when shot in the back. Williams' wife, Daisy (Mae Busch), happens to be the daughter of a police officer who is convinced of Williams' involvement in the robbery.

For such a straightforward story, it makes some ridiculous plot choices, and the worst involve Daisy. She's not portrayed as rebellious, so you wonder how she ended up with Chick and his gang in the first place. Then, as someone who grew up in an atmosphere of law and order, she lacks sharp wits and instincts. Instead, she's portrayed as the "good woman led astray," a fairly typical characterization found during the silent era. And not once but twice does she unwittingly provide information that first helps her husband's gang and then helps the law. It's cruel that the story forces her to do this, because she ends up as a well-meaning zero lacking personality rather than the damsel in distress who gains audience sympathy. Sadly, Busch does nothing to make her interesting.

But it's important to understand when this film was made, an era in which the results were often uneven and could combine elements of both silent and sound movies. Writers were frantically trying to learn how to write for the screen, and dialogue sometimes came off sounding like a silent movie title card, which was never meant to reflect a conversational style. Studio talent scouts were scouring the country for stage actors who knew how to speak lines, while movie makers were grasping the use of the sound technology, which often meant cameramen couldn't move their equipment with the freedom they once had due to restrictive microphone placement.

What does work in "Alibi" manages to combine sound and visuals that make the most of the situation. For example, the opening sequence starts off in a jail with the clanging of the jail bell. This is followed by the footsteps of the prisoners marching to their cells, with an officer keeping time by beating his nightstick against the wall. There's no dialogue yet, but it's a super use of sound effects that we take for granted today.

The next sequence is visual, as the camera winds its way through the highly stylized lobby of a nightclub (above) on its way to the floor show. Then comes the singing and dancing -- remember, the musical was a genre born in this new sound era, so seeing and hearing musical numbers were a treat. Unfortunately, "Alibi" has four numbers in it, two too many, and none imaginatively shot.

The robbery sequence uses sound to its fullest effect -- car engines, whistles and nightsticks. The gunshots fired that kill the officer provides a punctuation point to a powerful segment. Later, an interrogation sequence uses light and shadows to add intensity and create a sense of foreboding, proving that a static setting could be filmed imaginatively.

Still, these are intertwined with static scenes with poorly-written dialogue. For example, Daisy and a detective who loves her share ridiculously cliched thoughts, and at one point the sound level drops as they move out of range from the microphone!

At least the man playing Chick provides some excitement. Although Morris could be hammy at times, it's clear why he became a star. He'd appeared in the occasional film during the 1920s, but Morris forged a name for himself on Broadway. His deep, strong voice and good looks made him a natural in the sound era, and this film put him on the map. His appearances the next year in "The Big House" and "The Divorcee" solidified his popularity. By the end of the decade it appeared his career was over. Then he made a comeback playing Boston Blackie in a series of successful movies during the 1940s.

Although "Alibi" isn't the first gangster movie made in Hollywood, its influence as a sound film certainly led to the popularity of the genre. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor. Granted, this was only the second year of the awards, but the recognition reflects how highly people regarded this movie.

Still, be forewarned that watching the film will lead to conflicting moments -- intrigue, disbelief and a temptation to hit the fast forward button. (At least the climax provides a nifty plot twist.) In the end, "Alibi" is watchable but not compelling, of merit for film buffs who want to explore this era when technology changed the way movies were made.


  1. "Alibi" sounds fascinating. I'll have to check it out. I see "Alibi" was directed by Roland West. Very interesting. In 1930 West directed "The Bat Whispers", a visual feast of zooming cameras and trick camera work. The opening is pretty striking, with the camera zooming up and down over a miniature mansion set. He had quite the eye.

    West was carrying on an affair with Thelma Todd when she was found dead in 1935. Her murder is still one of Hollywood's unsolved mysteres,and West was a suspect. His career never recovered.

    That era of film is so intresting. Silent cinema had reached its peak by 1927-1928 and with sound coming in, many movies became stagebound. Visual magnificence was gone and dialogue was in. Tragically two of the era's greatest visualists, Paul Leni and F.W. Murnau, died prematurely and West was done in my scandal. It's interesting to consider how much film would have changed if they had gone on to fullfill their promise.

    If anyone ever thinks silent films are boring, show them Murnau's "Sunrise" (1927) or Leni's "The Man Who Laughs" (1928). The only word I can say is "Wow".

  2. "Sunrise" is one of my all-time favorite silent films. Just beautiful. I was reading on IMDB that West confessed to killing Todd on his deathbed, and Chester Morris is who he told. I'll have to check out "The Bat Whisperers."