Saturday 10 February 2007

Alibi (1929) Roland West

I seem to be watching a lot of old prison movies lately, but none quite so old as this. Anyway, it only starts in prison because we're watching star Chester Morris get released as Chick Williams, prisoner no 1065. These scenes play just like a silent movie, which apparently Alibi also was. This was 1929, after all, and thus soon after the advent of sound yet before the arrival in Hollywood of many of the next generation of stars in 1930 and 1931. Whole sections are very quiet because the technicians hadn't quite worked out how everything worked yet, songs are dubbed because the singers can't sing and yet, like Fritz Lang's M, there are scenes driven by sound, not whistling this time but the tapping in code of policemen's nightsticks, from which the title of the source play, Nightstick, was derived.

Williams may be an ex-con but he marries a police sergeant's daughter, much to the anger of her father, played by a painfully overacting Purnell Pratt. He tries to pin a murder on him, a cop who was killed during a robbery, but his own daughter provides the alibi as they were at a theatre at the time the murder was committed. However he's still the man behind the job and he unwittingly hires an undercover cop to provide the alibi for the five minutes the two of them weren't together.

Much of it looks highly impressive, courtesy of Roland West's direction, which was always underrated, and the work of other major names that I'm starting to recognise, such as art direction by William Cameron Menzies, who went on to become the industry's first credited production designer for Gone with the Wind, and cinematography by Ray June, three times Oscar nominated. West, June and Morris would return for the wonderful film The Bat Whispers only one year later, which looked just as great. There are some superb uses of shadows, unusual camera angles, some fluid camerawork early on, even a few point of view shots from theatre boxes or the insides of cars. However there are other scenes where the camera does nothing at all, probably because the limitations of sound technology at the time meant that they couldn't move it around too much.

These are the biggest downsides. There are some very talky (yet quiet) scenes that really don't gel at all with the effective visuals and innovative use of sound. The silent scenes are great, but the talky scenes seriously boring and often very stagy too. When watching examples like this, I wonder how the industry managed to make a success out of the whole sound concept!

Also, Purnell Pratt isn't the ony actor seriously chewing up the scenery. Regis Toomey must make the worst fake drunk I think I've ever seen in my life, and he has the most overblown death scene in history that wasn't intended to be for laughs. He has an inane grin that makes him look like a retarded and shrunken Art Garfunkel, or maybe a moronic Peter MacNicol. Harry Stubbs is monotonal and sleep inducing, and Irma Harrison isn't far behind. I could act better than them and I know I can't act. Even Mae Busch is dire. Of all the actors, only Chester Morris is acceptable, with a few great scenes and a couple of bad ones, but even then this is probably the worst I've seen him out of nine films.

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