Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 02 December 2008
Source Kino Video DVD
Alibi lies on the cusp between American silent and sound filmmaking. Like many a film of the day, its visual style reflects an accommodation made to the arrival of sound, with fluid, expressive sequences that were clearly shot silent and then overlaid with music and sound effects alternating with static dialogue-heavy scenes. The film’s fascination lies in its hybridity, the tug-of-war enacted before our eyes between the two conflicting styles that support silent filmmaking on the one side and sound on the other. Does it need to be added that silent cinema wins out resoundingly?
Some big claims have been made for Alibi. It’s been held up as a great American gangster film, a precursor to the Warners gangster classics of the thirties, and as a film made in the spirit of German expressionism and hence as a link with the equally classic films noirs of the forties. These claims are all a bit overblown. Certainly the gangster setting of New York nightclubs and penthouse apartments is one that would become increasingly familiar in the more famous Warners films that followed. And certainly you can’t deny the Expressionistic - and more specifically, Langian - influences, but the problem is that they aren’t worked through with any consistency. In fact, you’re more likely to be impressed by the Art Deco touches of William Cameron Menzies’ designs for the film’s upper-class settings.
Alibi comes towards the end of Roland West’s directing career—after two more films he gave it up, by all accounts because of lack of his support from his studio, United Artists. His fourteen films covered a whole range of genres—everything from westerns (Driftwood) to exotic melodramas (The Dove) but he’s best remembered for his work in the crime/thriller/horror genres, films like The Monster with Lon Chaney, or The Bat, made with the mix of thrills and laughs popular with both stage and cinema audiences of the day. Alibi was his only straight cops-and-gangsters movie, based on a popular stage play from a couple of years before.
The film opens in striking fashion, with a series of visually resonant images. There’s a stark rigour to the geometric lines and forms, the sharp shadows that fall on blank backdrops, the simple outlines that stand out in an otherwise empty space. West has studied his influences well; German expressionism and Fritz Lang’s work in particular have set the style of this opening (there are even a couple of shots explicitly referencing Metropolis). So: a prison guard’s hand swings a nightstick in front of the full-length shadow he casts on the wall; another hand pulls the lever on a giant bell next to another wall-shadow; prisoners’ legs march mechanically down a corridor; a guard stares straight at us, striking his nightstick against the wall on which his shadow falls; on the long, empty corridor cell doors open in unison, and the prisoners emerge and march off in one unified mechanistic, jerky movement.
This is the intro to the start of the story proper. Chick Williams - who is pulled out of that line of anonymous automaton-prisoners - is being released today. There’s no dialogue yet, as all of this section, weighted with so much mood and feeling conveyed through image, was clearly shot silent. West, in transforming it into sound cinema, finds two simple sounds - the rhythmic, alienated march of the prisoners, the brutal staccato rap of the nightstick - that he lays over the images to reinforce theme and emotion. It’s an attempt at a productive application of sound as a support to the visual power of silently-shot scenes.
There’s a wonderful graceful fluidity to the series of forward tracks/dissolves that take us through a change of scene to the new setting of a nightclub (cue the first of the film’s musical backdrop numbers) where Chick meets up with his criminal cronies and his fiancée Joan. But the film comes to an inevitable juddering halt with its first dialogue scene, with the camera fixed and unmoving and the actors lined up behind a table as if on the stage. (The stodginess of these dialogue scenes isn’t helped by the poor, muddy quality of the sound—Kino really should have provided subtitles for their DVD.)
This is the aesthetic tension that runs throughout Alibi, between the grace and beauty of the fluid silent camera and the ponderous dullness of the sound scenes. Still, West does make good attempts at using the sound additions creatively. For example, there’s a scene where Joan’s father, police sergeant Pete Manning, is shaving. Essentially the only sound on the soundtrack is the incessant tweeting of a caged bird, which annoys Manning as much as it probably does most of the audience. He covers the cage with a cloth, which promptly silences the bird; then, in a comic touch, when he partly moves the towel to dry himself, the tweeting starts up again on the soundtrack.
Similarly, there are attempts at finding creative solutions around the static set-ups forced upon West by the heavy sound cameras. When undercover cop Danny McGann is shot and lies dying, the scene is filmed as a single long take, holding tightly on the dying Danny’s face, who is cradled by the faces of Manning and detective sergeant Tommy Glennon on either side; the light is then slowly brought down, increasing the darkness and shadows as the life drains out of Danny.
Much has been made of the supposed parallels between cops and gangsters, how each side is made as violent, brutal, and ruthless as the other. To me this interpretation is rather overstated, for in a sense what parallelism there may be is beside the point; the whole drive of the film swings around the narrative twist at its centre, the undercutting of the audience expectations it sets up at the start. Chick is presented to us initially as a victim of corrupt police work. When he meets his girlfriend Joan and friends at the nightclub, we quickly learn that Chick was framed by none less than Joan’s own father. There’s no indication even that Chick was any kind of hardened criminal and the suspicion is that the frame was set up more for personal reasons. Pete Manning wants Joan to marry his younger colleague Tommy Glennon, and in this familiar storyline - parental authority attempts to thwart young love - sympathy is firmly on the side of Chick and Joan and against Manning, the enforcer of the Law, both parental and social.
That lack of sympathy for the police figures here is only intensified at the sight of the unsavoury methods Manning and Glennon adopt. They’re intent on proving that Chick was involved in a robbery and the murder of a passing cop, even though he was with Joan at a concert the same night—the alibi of the title that they want to break. (There’s a great point-of-view shot from the driver’s seat of Manning and Glennon’s car as it speeds through the dark night streets, trying to prove that Chick could have gone between both locations—the kind of shot you’ll see in so many 30’s gangster and 40’s noir films.) Manning and Glennon pick up Chick’s associate Soft Malone and threaten to kill him and pretend he was attempting to escape if he doesn’t cooperate.
The film doesn’t make an equivalence here between cop and gangster. We’re not meant to think that Manning and Glennon would murder Malone; they’re just ready to be ruthless (as we’ve seen in so many cop films since then) in tracking down a cop killer. And in any case this is the point at which the wholesale shift in audience sympathy takes place. Chick is now revealed as a threatening figure of unrelenting violence, which he’s happy to turn against those close to him, verbally in Joan’s case, physically in the case of the fence Backman. Correspondingly, Manning and even more so Glennon become heroic figures, committed cops hard at work tracking down a villainous threat to social order. There are no shadings in characterisation—and this does make Alibi a less interesting and less effective film than the more famous gangster films that were to follow in the thirties. Its real interest lies in those moments that reveal West’s inventiveness with sound, and in those sections of the film that act, in their visual fluency, as a tribute to a silent cinema in the process of being lost in the changeover to the primitive sound technology of the day.