My entry on “Alibi” was inspired by sixmartini’s wonderful post — and you are reading sixmartinis and the seventh art, right? Shame on you if you’re not. As you skim through the screencaps here you may see some very similar to what sixmartinis already posted, which I promise you was completely unintentional. Her entry apparently worked some unconscious mojo on me. The visuals sixmartini chooses stay with me for a long time, and I truly love that about her blog.
“Alibi”, an early talkie from 1929, opens on a semi-silent expressionist scene, the forced metronome cadence of prisoners slowly replaced by sunlight, then freedom, then the rhythmic tapping of dancing girls as Chick Williams (blog fave Chester Morris) is released from prison.
That night he dines at Bachman’s club with club owner Buck Bachman, Buck’s girl Diamond Daisy, and Chick’s girl Joan Manning (Eleanore Griffith). Buck assures Chick that everyone knows he was framed by the corrupt local police. Nearby a table of peculiar men, one smoking a joint, look on. The craziest and allegedly least sober of the group approaches the table and hits on Joan. He is introduced as Billy Morgan (Regis Toomey), one of Buck’s “brokers”. At Daisy’s encouragement he finagles a horrified Joan’s address.
During the scene at Bachman’s there is a lengthy tracking shot from the back of the room to the table where Chick and his friends are seated. Inspired by Roger Ebert’s recent article entitled “How to Read a Movie”, and knowing that early talkies had nearly stationary cameras due to the new, cumbersome technology, I watched the scene closely.
I noticed patrons slyly moving out of the way of the approaching camera, including an entire table and chairs set which were whisked off to the right to make way for the shot. For a 1929 film, the camera movement is much less static than one would expect, although still nowhere approaching the fluidity that had been achieved in the silent era.
The next morning Tommy (Pat O’Malley) shows up at Joan’s house. Tommy is a police officer who works with Joan’s father Sgt. Pete Manning. Joan and Tommy have recently broken off a relationship because Joan, having had a policeman for a father, doesn’t want to have one for a husband. Sgt. Manning, showing angry loyalty to his job and his fellow officers, is upset with his daughter for dumping Tommy and dating Chick. That Joan also believes Chick was framed positively enrages him. Joan makes it clear she thinks the police are corrupt, and that includes Tommy and her father.
That night a fur store is robbed. The alarm is sounded by an officer who, in return, is shot by the gang that robbed the store. The police immediately suspect local gangster Soft Malone. Tommy and Sgt. Manning return to Manning’s apartment to discuss the case, and bring in another policeman, Danny McGann, to help them out. Danny McGann is an undercover cop posing as the drunk and creepy Billy Morgan we saw earlier; his identity is a ruse to infiltrate Bachman’s club. When Joan returns to the apartment she recognizes Danny as Billy. When her father says he’s going to pin the fur robbery and policeman’s murder on Chick, she threatens to expose Danny’s undercover identity in revenge.
Joan repeatedly tells Tommy that she loves Chick, while Tommy repeatedly tells Joan he wants to marry her. He’ll even quit the force for her, once he captures this cop killer, but she is not convinced.
Joan is played by the rather noncommittal Eleanore Griffith, a successful stage actress who appeared in only two films (after adding an “e” to her name, for unknown reasons).Her most famous appearance was as the “baby vampire” Babuschka in “The Last Waltz”, a huge stage hit. During the next couple of years one could find Griffith in many glamour shots in theater magazines, and as you can see in the “baby vampire” link, her personal life was even the subject of press releases. The career boost in 1922 appears to have led to her first film appearance in “Cardigan” (1922), a film I presumed had been lost but which a reviewer for the All Movie Guide appears to have seen. Then again, All Movie Guide has been known to make mistakes, so who knows. At any rate, Griffith returned to the stage after “Cardigan” and was not seen on film for another 7 years. Her last appearances on either stage or screen were in 1929, the year of “Alibi”, and there is almost nothing to be found about Griffith past 1930. Did this movie kill her career? She certainly stayed in Hollywood, penning stories and being credited for writing 2 movies in the 1930s, but as far as I can tell she never acted again.
Daisy (Mae Busch) comes upstairs to fetch Joan and is surprised to find Danny, who she knows only as Billy, in the apartment. Danny pretends to be a drunkard again and excuses himself by saying he just followed up on Joan’s address to ask her out. Daisy believes it and Joan doesn’t expose him… yet. She won’t reveal who he really is as long as her father doesn’t falsely pin the murder on Chick.
Chick, it seems, has an alibi: Joan. During the robbery and murder Chick and Joan were busy watching a show… and eloping! Ha! The blustery Sergeant throws a fit in Technicolor and tosses Chick out of the house while locking his daughter into a room. Chick smugly leaves and Joan sneaks out a window. Take that, copper!
The Sergeant and Tommy are done harranguing Joan and locking her in rooms against her will, because now they finally manage to leave the apartment and do some police work. They follow the trail of the robbers’ getaway, check show times, and round up a bunch of suspects for line-ups. The line-up is supremely creepy. The men in the audience wear black masks to prevent anyone from identifying them later.
With nothing more than a hunch, Tommy and the Sergeant bring in Soft Malone for questioning. For the first time we wonder if Chick really is guilty; Malone has all the same alibis and ticket stubs that Chick had. The cops scare Malone by forcing him to put his fingerprints on a gun that they plan to use in a frame-up — they’re going to murder him and claim “self-defense.” They then menacingly open a window with the implication that they’ll toss him to his death if he doesn’t confess that Chick was in on the murder. Obviously Malone confesses, and as far as I can tell the audience is supposed to believe the confession. I, however, wasn’t sure.
Back at Bachman’s the lead dancing girl Toots (Irma Harrison) and Billy/Danny flirt with each other. The adorable Toots and the slimebucket Billy/Danny have a thing, all while Toots thinks she’s fallen for a mobster’s “broker” of course. They’re interrupted when Chick arrives and heads straight for Buck Bachman’s office in a tizzy: he needs a better alibi because there is a missing 5 minutes in his story.
I’d just like to interrupt this summary to say WOW, what an amazing art deco office! Clearly, Buck and Chick are innocent of any wrongdoing. Anyone who decorates their office like this is an amazing man, a humanitarian, a fine upstanding citizen. C’mon, just look at that wallpaper!
Chick calls Billy/Danny into the office and asks him to lie for them in order to account for that missing 5 minutes, which he agrees to do. Billy claims he needs to go meet a man for some club business, but Chick offers to let Billy have the meeting at Bachman’s. Chick calls Billy’s contact for him, unaware that Billy’s contact is actually a policeman at a pre-determined phone number.
Joan, lonely and impatient for her new husband, arrives at Buck’s office. She becomes suspicious when she learns Billy is the alibi for the lost 5 minutes, so she calls her policeman ex-boyfriend Tommy to check into the situation. Tommy isn’t at the police station so she uses the pre-determined police phone number, the same one Billy/Danny used moments earlier. Chick immediately knows what’s going on and realizes the cops have been alerted and are likely on their way. He manages to send Joan off without her realizing there’s a problem.
Chick and two henchmen confront Billy and a tense stare-down ensues. When Toots barges into the office looking for Billy, he is distracted just long enough to be shot. Chick and the henchmen escape while Tommy, the Sergeant, and other police officers arrive just in time for Billy/Danny to die in Tommy’s arms in the most protracted death scene since Shakespeare. Seriously, a quick “I would like to have seen Montana” would have sufficed. Did anyone really care about the sleazebucket Billy? He looked like Gilbert Gottfried when pretending to be drunk, but sadly did not have as smooth a voice, nor the pure animal magnetism, of Gottfried.
A fight erupts between Daisy and Buck back at their apartment. Buck beats Daisy for being disrespectful; Daisy laments that she gave up a good husband for Buck. When Joan arrives, though, they go back to pretending to be happy. While they’re out of the room Joan innocently calls the police again, still looking for Tommy, and tells them where she’s at. They quickly figure that the now-wanted Chick will be at Buck’s apartment. Buck’s fabulously appointed art deco apartment.
When Chick returns, Joan realizes something is wrong and becomes frightened. Chick tells her the whole truth. Tommy and the police arrive just then, Tommy swearing that he will kill Chick in revenge for killing Danny.
Chick cowers in abject fear, begging and pleading for his life, but to no avail. As he runs in a panic Tommy shoots him in the back. Chick emits a high-pitched howl and collapses on the floor… in a faint. Tommy fired blanks, not real bullets. With undisguised contempt — contempt at Chick’s lack of manliness more than his murdering spree — he kicks Chick awake. Chick runs out of the suite and onto the roof in a last-ditch effort to escape. He jumps for the next building over and just misses, falling to his death. Tommy and Joan share a moment on the roof as the movie fades out.
If there is one flaw in this film it’s that the foreshadowing and intent of the characters is muddled. During the film Daisy, played by the inimitable Mae Busch, snots off to Buck several times. By the conclusion of the film you realize that Daisy and Buck were supposed to positively hate each other and they just pretend to be content in front of Joan as a ruse. Instead, Daisy’s quips seem like the normal sassy banter of strong late-silent/early-talkies era woman.
Chick’s guilt is also questionable throughout the film. Chick has so little to say that many in the audience must have had no idea that he was truly guilty. Further, the pacing from the moment we are finally certain he is involved in the crime — when he asks Billy/Danny to help him with his alibi — to the moment we see with our own eyes that he’s a cop killer is tedious. It makes the revelation less important, less urgent. There is also very little made of the police coercing a confession from Soft Malone in a horrifyingly improper manner. We expect there to be some kind of ambiguity, an exploration of whether doing the wrong thing for the right reason makes everything okay. Or at the least a comparison of the criminal’s behavior versus the police’s behavior, something. Instead we get the bad guy defeated and the girl goes with the good guy and no one questions anything.
Despite the methods of the police in this film being questionable at best, “Alibi” was banned in several cities, namely Chicago, for its “disrespect” to the police and their procedures. Perhaps people were more upset at seeing corrupt police, but I suspect the assumption of the day was that any method, ethical or not, was appropriate as long as the bad guy was caught. Censors also did not approve of showing the murder of police officers. Here in Kansas the film was banned specifically for the scene where a gangster thumbs his nose at a police officer.
Oh, and another flaw: Chester Morris doesn’t have nearly enough screen time. You can tell he’s a newbie actor, still rough around the edges and with some timing issues, but the sheer raw emotion of his performance is outstanding. Visceral, direct, uncomplicated — he must have been a revolution in his day, and it’s easy to see why he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.
There are some absolutely lovely images in this film. I’ll leave you with a few more after the Further Reading links.