1929 was a transitional year for Hollywood.
On the one hand, more people were going to the movies than ever. The studio moguls were getting rich and directors, many of whom were influenced by German expressionism, were experimenting with new ways to visually tell their stories. The days when an motionless camera would just be planted on the floor so that it could record actors moving in and out of the frame were over.
At the same time, Hollywood was also struggling to adjust to the arrival of sound. Though many assumed that sound would just be a fad, it quickly turned out that audiences preferred sound pictures to the old silent melodramas. Films that had been originally conceived as being silent were reshot with sound and the results were often mixed as Hollywood technicians struggled to figure out how to get the best and clearest recording possible. Even harder hit were the actors, who had spent decades giving silent performances but who were now expected to adapt, overnight, to an entirely new style of acting. Some actors saw their career abruptly end because their voice didn’t match their appearance or because they simply couldn’t memorize the dialogue that they were now required to actually speak. Even the actors who could handle delivering their dialogue often struggled to find the right balance between acting too much and acting too little.
Take Alibi, for instance. This crime film was released in 1929 and visually, it’s often a marvel. But whenever the actors open their mouths and start to recite their dialogue …. yeesh!
Based on a Broadway play, Alibi tells the story of Chick Williams (Chester Morris, whose brooding good looks go a long way towards making up for his awkward screen presence). Chick is a career criminal who has just been released from prison. Because he’s a “jailbird,” (as they used to put it in 1929), Sgt. Pete Manning (Purnell Pratt) is convinced that Chick has hooked back up with his old gang and that he’s responsible for a recent robbery that left one policeman dead. However, Chick has an alibi. It turns out that, after getting out of prison, one of the first that Chick did was get married. Chick’s new wife is Pete’s daughter, Joan (Eleanor Griffith)! And Joan swears that, on the night of the crime, Chick was with her at the theater.
Despite his alibi, Pete is convinced that Chick had something to do with both the robbery and the murder. Pete decides to send in an undercover cop, Danny McGann (Regis Toomey). Pretending to be a permanently drunk businessman, Danny works his way into Chick’s mob. But can Danny find the proof needed to take Chick down?
So, here’s what’s good about Alibi. First off, it’s a pre-code film, which means that the characters are allowed to occasionally curse and that the gangsters all spend their time at a nightclub, watching the floor show. It also means that Joan is allowed to openly discuss why she distrusts the police and the film shows the police being brutal in a way that would never be allowed during the production code years. Secondly, from the very first scene, director Roland West creates an almost dream-like atmosphere, full of looming shadows and art deco sets and close-ups of menacing faces. West’s camera prowls through the streets and clubs with a restless energy.
But then, as I mentioned earlier, someone will open their mouth and start to speak and the entire film comes to a halt. The cast — some of whom went on to have long and successful careers — was obviously still struggling to figure out how to act in a sound film and the results are definitely mixed. Eleanor Griffith delivers all of her lines in the same angry tone while Purnell Pratt stiffly defends the police force. Regis Toomey, meanwhile, goes so overboard as Danny that you find yourself hoping that he’ll blow his cover and be forced out of the film. Though he’s occasionally awkward, Chester Morris probably does the best out of the entire cast. At the very least, he manages to communicate some genuine menace.
Seen today, Alibi is mostly interesting as a historical document. It represents both the best and the worst of the early sound era. When it was first released, Alibi was a hit at the box office. Though no official nominees were announced for the 2nd Academy Awards, notes from the era indicate the Alibi was among the films considered for Best Picture and it’s usually listed as being a nominee. The award itself was given to Broadway Melody.