Wednesday September 14, 2022
Movie Review: Alibi (1929)
The crime at the center of the film—for which the titular alibi becomes necessary—involves a warehouse fur heist gone wrong, leading to the death of a passing cop.
Yes, it’s the same crime Tom Powers and company would commit in “The Public Enemy” two years later (and parodied two years after that in “Little Giant”). So did Bright and Glasmon lift the idea from screenwriters Roland West and C. Gardner Sullivan, who were adapting the 1927 stage play “Nightstick”? Or were warehouse fur robberies a big deal in the 1920s?
“Alibi” is one of the first gangster films of the sound era, so most of the actors speak in that odd, slow, dreamlike cadence of early talkies rather than the snappy patter of a Cagney or Robinson. But we get some great shots from director Roland West: the shadow of the detective outside the door while Soft Malone (Elmer Ballard) is being grilled; Billy Morgan (Regis Toomey in his film debut) drunkenly reaching for booze; the rooftop escape of Chick Williams (Chester Morris, nominated for an Oscar).
Most unexpected? A pretty good mid-movie reveal.
Cops just don’t understand
It begins the way “The Big House” (also starring Morris) began a year later: with the robotic clomping of the feet of marching prisoners. One is singled out. He’s shown a piece of paper with his prison ID on it, “No. 1065,” and it morphs into his name, “Chick Williams.” When we next see him, he’s wearing a suit, rather than his prison grays, and shaking the guard’s hand on the way out. Nice bit.
Then we’re a nightclub run by Buck Bachman (Harry Stubbs), with the dancing girls and singers of the era. Chick is there with his girl, Joan (Eleanor Griffith), at a table with Buck and his wise-cracking moll Daisy (Mae Busch), and they’re talking about the bum rap Chick got. A drunk stumbles over. It’s Billy Morgan, boy stockbroker. He’s got an eye for Joan and engages in some shenanigans to get her address. Buck calls him harmless. We wonder.
For the first half, it feels like a wronged-man movie. Chick is courting Joan, the daughter of Sgt. Paul Manning (Purnell Pratt), but the old man hates Chick, whom he calls a jailbird, and wants Joan to marry Det. Tommy Glennon (Pat O’Malley). But Joan doesn't want to marry a cop. Some of her thoughts feel on the matter feel surprisingly contemporary:
Tommy: Now what’s the matter with policemen?
Joan: They’re man hunters. They’re cruel and merciless—always hounding some poor devil and sending him to jail. They think themselves great heroes.
Tommy: Well, we’ve got to uphold the law.
Joan: Law! Is third-degreeing—bull-dogging people into confessing crimes they didn’t commit—is that law?
Tommy: No, but... Oh, I don’t understand.
Joan: Of course you don’t. You’re a policeman.
Much of the film bears her out, too. When Dad finds out Chick and Joan got married, he literally locks up his daughter like she’s in a fairy tale. Then he tries to railroad Chick into jail again by pinning the fur heist/cop killing on him with zero evidence. When his own daughter provides the alibi—that they were at the National Theater that night—Dad sends Tommy to see if it was theoretically possible for Chick to have committed the crime. And it was! The show has an intermission between 9:55 and 10:05, and the cop was killed at 10 PM—just five minute away.
Which is when they start sweating witnesses, specifically Soft Malone, who was seen driving away from the scene of the crime. How do they sweat him? They threaten to kill him. Here’s Tommy:
You ever know what happened to Gimpy Jackson after he shot a cop? He just disappeared.
A few minutes later, he gets more specific:
How’d you like to be buried next to Gimpy Jackson, Soft?
Holy crap. At this point, I’m thinking: Well, the movie was independently produced, by West, and distributed by United Artists, and it was pre-code, so cops didn’t have to be heroes. Even so, it felt revelatory: The cops are the bad guys!
All that strongarming works, too: Soft gives up a name, and it’s Chick’s. So Dad got what he wanted. And now they’re going after him.
Which is when we get our second reveal.
The first reveal is that Billy Morgan, the drunk broker who finagles Joan’s address, is in fact an undercover cop, Danny McGann. The second reveal is that our poor put-upon hero is in fact a cold-blooded cop killer. Dad was right: Chick actually runs the gang; Buck is a flunky. When Chick discovers that Soft Malone has been pinched, he looks for a respectable citizen who might “verify” that Chick phoned him at 10 PM from the National Theater on the night of the killing. Guess who he chooses? Billy Morgan, boy broker.
All of that is kind of fun. Everything is the opposite of what it seemed in the first half:
- Put-upon hero is ruthless killer
- Drunk lech is hero cop
- Soft-voiced cop is tough hero
- Outspoken woman is absolute idiot
Yes, that means the movie's hero, Tommy, also threatened to kill a witness in cold blood. But I guess you can’t have everything.
What cowards these criminals be
My favorite character is Daisy. She’s a smart cookie who’s stuck with Buck, a dull lump, and she gets off some of the best lines. After everything goes awry, he tells her to pack a suitcase, she balks, and he pushes her head-first into a door. (Makes a grapefruit-to-the-face seem loving.) Shortly thereafter, Chick arrives, sees Joan on the phone (unknowingly alerting the cops to their whereabouts), and starts yelling at Buck.
Chick: What do you mean letting her use that phone? I oughta break your neck.
Daisy: Oh please. Don’t talk about it. Do it.
As revolutionary as the movie seems early on, with Joan’s diatribe against coppers, it winds up at the other, more predictable extreme, with Tommy not only catching Chick but taunting him into proving what a coward he is. That said, Chick’s death is handled well. He escapes to the rooftop, jumps to another building, barely makes it, then loses his balance and falls silently to his death. I flashed on Roth’s death in Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead.”
It’s not a bad little movie, totally undeserving of its current 5.7 IMDb rating. Don’t think Morris deserved his Oscar nom, but I guess the mid-movie switcheroo impressed early Academy voters. Set design is crazy fun: those art-deco doors of early talkies, along with almost Dali-esque wallpaper.
Director Roland West is probably best known today for being a suspect in the 1935 death of Thelma Todd, his one-time lover and business partner (of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café), whose body was found in West’s garage in a still-running Packard convertible. He directed several good Lon Chaney movies in the silent era, and obviously made the transition to talkies well enough, so I’m not sure what happened to him. His last film, as director or producer, was “Corsair” in 1931, starring Chester Morris and Thelma Todd. He also has several ur-superhero connections. His 1926 silent film, “The Bat,” was part of the inspiration for Batman, while West later married Lola Lane, one of the Lane sisters (“Four Daughters,” “Four Wives”), whose name, yes, helped inspire Jerry Siegel’s Daily Planet reporter.
West died in 1952, age 65. In his obit, “Alibi” is called “one of the greatest hits in motion picture history.” It wasn't, then or now, but it's better than 5.7.
A publicity shot depicting the movie's main conflict: boyfriend vs. daddyo. In the first half, Dad locks up his daughter and threatens a witness with a gun. Guess what? Father knows best.
Just some minor witness intimidation.
West was still employing various silent-film-era visual effects that felt amost avant-garde.
Like this. The guy behind the door is never explained.
It's either Salvador Dali's rec room or an early go at the Partridge Family bus design.
Regis Toomey in his film debut, reaching for the bottle. He doesn't know his cover has already been blown.
Chick making his getaway.
And just before the fall.
As it must to all men. *FIN*