Friday, September 11, 2009

Alibi (Roland West) ***1/2

Roland West

Cast: Chester Morris, Harry Stubbs, Mae Busch, Eleanore Griffith, Regis Toomey, Purnell Pratt

Background: Roland West was a theater director who had made a name for himself in film with the 1925 Lon Chaney vehicle Monster. The story for Alibi was based on a stage play called Nightstick.

Story: Gangster Chick Williams (Morris) has just been released from prison and is now married to a policeman's daughter (Busch). He doesn't leave his old ways behind and soon finds himself having to cover his tracks for the murder of a policeman during a botched robbery attempt.

Thoughts: It's odd to say about a film that received a Best Picture nomination, but this is one severely underrated film. Many contemporary takes on the film call it clunky and outdated. While the sound is admittedly a problem in this early talkie, there is still plenty to admire here. The most notable aspect is that West takes a stage play and the limitations of the camera during the early sound era and still comes up wtih a nice visual flair. I especially like the art deco design of the gang hideout. There's also a brilliant interrogation sequence that utilizes some interesting camera angles to add to the tension. The characters are all played with multiple dimensions (the charismatic Morris is especially strong), and West isn't above making the cops seem self serving. The film concludes with a rooftop chase sequence that is very advanced for the time period.

Postscript: Alibi received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Morris), and Best Art Direction. Roland West's career was cut short when his mistress mysteriously died and he was considered a suspect, although no evidence ever turned up and no one was ever charged for the crime. Chester Morris continued acting for a long time, including numerous films in the Boston Blackie detective series in the 40s.

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