Chick Williams, a prohibition gangster, rejoins his mob soon after being released from prison. When a policeman is murdered during a robbery, he falls under suspicion. The gangster took ... See full summary »
Chick Williams, a prohibition gangster, rejoins his mob soon after being released from prison. When a policeman is murdered during a robbery, he falls under suspicion. The gangster took Joan, a policeman's daughter, to the theater, sneaked out during the intermission to commit the crime, then used her to support his alibi. The detective squad employs its most sophisticated and barbaric techniques, including planting an undercover agent in the gang, to bring him to justice. Written by
Fiona Kelleghan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Having become a fan of director West via the ‘old dark house’-type comedy-thriller THE BAT WHISPERS (1930), I looked forward to watching every ‘new’ film of his – in the intervening years since that first viewing of BAT (on the eve of the Millennium, no less!), I had only managed to catch up with the somewhat unsatisfactory Lon Chaney vehicle THE MONSTER (1925) but, now, in quick succession came the original Silent version of THE BAT (1926) and ALIBI (1929), his first Talkie (notable for its innovative early Sound technique).
The latter is a gangster melodrama (a genre pioneered by Josef von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD ) whose quality was even recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where it was in the running for three Oscars – Best Picture, Best Actor (forgotten star Chester Morris) and Best Art Direction (by the renowned William Cameron Menzies). While there are many who now look at it merely as a curio – and there’s no denying that its chief interest, after all these years, remains West’s artistic approach to the medium (extending also to camera position and movement, editing, and set design) – I found the plot itself, simple and moralistic though it is, reasonably absorbing.
Morris has just been released from prison and, while resuming his criminal activities, conveniently hitches up with a policeman’s daughter – she’s obviously naïve and speaks up for him when confronted with a murder rap. An undercover agent (Regis Toomey – who, feigning a drunken act, starts off by being obnoxious but eventually proves both hero and martyr) is ironically called upon to provide an alibi for Morris…but the girl unwittingly blows his cover and, inevitably, spells the man’s doom (bafflingly, West even places unwarranted emphasis on his overlong and maudlin death scene!). Eventually cornered in the top-floor of a high-rise, Morris breaks down before the cop who had been his rival for the heroine’s affections, revealing his true color (the star’s performance – alternating between smugness and a perpetual scowl – hadn’t been particularly distinguished up to that point, but he effectively shows his range here: his come-uppance, then, is truly incredible and unexpected). Also worth mentioning is the film’s unflinching brutality: Morris’ associate, the ageing owner of a popular establishment, has a tempestuous relationship with his “dizzy” moll (played by Mae Busch, frequent foil for the comic duo of Laurel & Hardy) and, at one point, he pushes her and she bashes her head against a cabinet!; later on in the scene, it’s he who gets thrown clear across the room by a punch from an enraged Morris.
Having just read the “DVD Talk” and “Slant Magazine” reviewers’ comments on the film, I’m not sure I agree completely – perhaps because I knew beforehand Morris would be playing a crook – with their contention that the line between hero and villain is deliberately blurred (in view of the Police’s objectionable methods, particularly a scene in which a captured member of Morris’ gang is literally terrorized into a confession) and even arguing that the gangster is initially depicted as sympathetic (his stretch in jail having apparently been the result of a frame-up). However, I got the impression that the Police were required to be tough in order to effectively meet the gangsters’ wave of lawlessness and violence (note how the cops stick together when a colleague of theirs is callously slain during a robbery, with the synchronized rapping of police clubs – the film was, in fact, based on a play called “Nightstick” – unleashing a dragnet over the whole area in a matter of seconds). Incidentally, an inspired way to further showcase the new-fangled Sound system was by throwing in a handful of ‘static’ musical numbers during the nightclub sequences!
That said, the quality of the “restored” audio was frankly quite horrid – with dialogue often too low to grasp or else being drowned out by extensive crackling on the soundtrack, and even dropping out entirely for a few seconds a couple of times! While nowhere near as distracting, the DVD transfer does display occasional combing; for some reason, too, the opening credits of the film have been digitally recreated!
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