Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Police on My Back

Films: Alibi
Format: Internet video on The Nook.

I try to keep things loose as much as I can with what movies I watch. What I mean by that is that I try to be varied in terms of what nominations I’m looking at and what decade I select from. I don’t want to watch a string of films from the same couple of years one after the other in general. If I’m honest, though, I’m pretty lax on watching things from the earliest years of my Oscar categories. It’s been ages since I’ve seen something from the ‘20s. Part of the reason is that quality can be a real issue. Part of it is that of the movies that are missing, lost, or unavailable are pretty heavily concentrated in those first few years. Regardless, I came across Alibi online today, so I figured I may as well knock it out.

Where Alibi is kind of interesting in terms of early talkies is that we don’t really have a main character. Well, we kind of do; we have Chick Williams (Chester Morris), who has just been released from prison. Chick protests his innocence, even though he probably was guilty. Now that he’s out, he’s ready to get back into his crime life, and he’s more than ready to cover himself as much as he can. He’s got an in; he has the romantic interest of Daisy Thomas (Mae Busch), who happens to be the daughter of the local police chief.

Soon enough, Chick does get back into the life and shoots a police officer, but he’s got himself covered. He pulled off the crime during the intermission of a show he attended with Daisy, giving him the perfect alibi. The police naturally want the crime solved and do everything they can to find the guilty party, including bringing in a stooge from Chick’s gang and literally threatening to kill him and cover it up as a failed escape attempt. He blabs that Chick pulled the trigger, but Chick has the problematic alibi. Worse, in the ensuing days, he’s married Daisy, meaning she can’t testify against him.

What Chick doesn’t know is that the drunk he hangs around with is actually an undercover cop. When it’s suggested that this alleged drunk be used to cover the five-minute gap in Chick’s alibi, the police know they have their man, and it all comes down to closing in on him and getting him to confess.

And that’s pretty much it for Alibi. It couldn’t be simpler. A guy commits a crime and creates what he thinks is an air-tight alibi. In fact, the police figure out that he did have the opportunity to commit the crime and they do everything they can to get the guilty man behind bars. The end.

I can imagine that Alibi worked pretty well for audiences in 1929. There are some interesting things done with sound in the opening moments of the film, for instance, and like virtually every early talkie, parts of the film take place in a nightclub so that there’s a chance for singing and dancing. And, while the plot is incredibly simplistic, the novelty of sound was such that audiences of the time were so focused on that that the plot didn’t need to be that exceptional. All it really had to do was hang together and make sense, and Alibi is so simple that it almost can’t help doing that.

The problem is that it’s not very good. Oh, it’s not the worst movie I’ve ever seen and it’s not even the worst crime movie I’ve ever seen. But it really isn’t very interesting because it is so basic and so easy to follow. We know where this is going from the very start. Really, the only interesting thing here is that Chick Williams is completely unsympathetic. We want this guy to get busted. That’s not a common thing for an early film where, when the villain was the main character, we’re at least given the opportunity to understand that character and even feel sorry for him. Not here. Then again, we don’t really have a reason to care about the police, either.

I can’t call this a great film, or even a good one. It’s mildly interesting only because of when it was made and the early experiments with using sound as more than just sound. But really, Alibi was so uninteresting that I’m out of things to say a good 100-200 words short of what I normally write.

Why to watch Alibi: An interesting early crime film.
Why not to watch: Like a lot of early talkies, it’s overplayed.


  1. I know I saw this but have only the vaguest recollection of it except that it was like so many of those talkies from that early period. Quickies slapped together to fill the demand for product crammed with people who were B or C listers in silents or falling stars who weren't going to make it in sound.

    In a book I read on the transition between the periods it stated that many studios had a whole subset of performers, ones they didn't have a whole lot of investment in or had been big stars but were faltering, Mae Busch (who's in this movie) was one of the names mentioned along with Dolores Costello, that they would dump into these programmers to keep the flow going while either grooming new players or preparing their biggest stars for a talkie debut. Chester Morris is an example of that first type, he was just starting out and somehow became a leading man for about two decades though I'm at a loss to how, he was a lousy actor.

    1. I'll save you the time on this--if all you have is a vague recollection, you don't need more. I'm guess that that's all I'll have in a couple of months. There's not enough of interest here beyond the dealing with sound in unique ways, and most of that comes at the start. Beyond that, there are other early crime films (Little Caesar, The Public Enemy) that give us a nasty main character and do everything else so much better.

  2. I haven't seen Alibi, but I tend to like early talkies, especially when they have the sense to be only 70 or 80 minutes, so I'd probably like it. With reservations, of course.

    Chester Morris had his moments, and he could be pretty good with good material. He's the dumb businessman in Red-Headed Woman. He's married to Leila Hyams, who's a total hottie, but he dumps her for Jean Harlow because he's a total knucklehead. (He's the one who slaps Harlow and she says "Do it again! I like it!")

    He's also in The Big House and The Bat Whispers, and does a pretty good job in both.

    Mae Busch is pretty awesome in a couple of Laurel and Hardy films, Tit for Tat (one of their best short films) and Sons of the Desert, their best feature film.

    Thanks for the info on the silent to sound transition, joel. I'm very interested in those transition films (I love those late silent films with a soundtrack but no dialogue, like Wild Orchids and Our Dancing Daughters), but the information about the stars they used is not something I've come across before.

    1. You might find some interest here, but there's really not a lot of "there" there. It doesn't even really work as a police procedural.

  3. God, did I detest this film. I hate to render this sort of comment as shameless self-promotion, but; read my review of it. I got particularly venomous towards this one.

    1. I did, actually--after I wrote mine. You hated it more than I did, but I can't say that I liked it much.