These notes on Roland West's Alibi (1929) were written by Megan Boyd, PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly restored DCP of Alibi from the UCLA Film & Television Archive will screen as part of UCLA's Festival of Preservation on Tour on Saturday, February 8 at 2 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. This screening is the first of four in the UCLA series this weekend. Arthur Ripley's Voice in the Wind will also screen on Saturday, February 8 at 3:45, followed by L.Q. Jones' apocalyptic cult classic A Boy and His Dog at 7 p.m. Then, on Sunday, February 9 at 2 p.m., a 35mm print of the 30s musical fantasy My Lips Betray screens at the Chazen Museum of Art. All screenings are free and open to the public.
By Megan Boyd
When United Artists released Alibi (1929), Motion Picture News declared enthusiastically, “the ultimate in talking picture production has been achieved.” Critics also granted the film the praise of being “by far the best crook picture ever made.” The film impressed reviewers by proving that sound could enhance a straight drama as opposed to enlivening musical numbers in popular films like The Jazz Singer (Warner Bros., 1927) or The Broadway Melody (MGM, 1929). Though The Broadway Melody would become the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Alibi also received a nomination for Best Picture that year, along with nominations for Best Actor (Chester Morris) and Best Art Direction (William Cameron Menzies). The film served as a key precedent for influential gangster films of the early 1930s, such as The Public Enemy (Warner Bros., 1931) or Scarface (United Artists, 1932).
Why did critics see Alibi as such an important step forward for proving sound’s value to narrative cinema? Coverage of the film pointed to two qualities: the use of sound to enhance the story’s atmosphere and the ability to incorporate sound without losing visual interest. The film opens with a striking credit sequence in which a police officer hits a wall with his baton while prisoners’ feet march in coordinated rhythm. Some commentators compared these rhythms to the “staccato sound quality of a machine gun.” Rhythms repeat throughout the film, as chorus girls stepping in line often mirror the opening’s marching and other sounds. The film continually goes beyond pure dialogue recording to consider ambient noise and sound effects. Watch for the playful use of a bird’s chirping in the home of Joan and her father. The bird chirps until her father places a sheet over the cage, at which point the bird’s chirping stops. He then lifts the sheet again and the noise resumes. The move does not forward the narrative, but adds to the dynamism of the sound landscape.
The second observation, that the film sustains visual interest despite incorporating dialogue, is also apparent in contemporary viewing. Director Roland West uses multiple tracking shots at the beginning of scenes, allowing the audience to explore the space before conversations begin in earnest. The set design also rightfully won William Cameron Menzies a nomination for its art deco patterns and expansive depth, with shadows painted onto the set to create dramatic contrast. Menzies was one of the most influential directors of production design in the 1920s and 30s, eventually winning an honorary Oscar for incorporating ‘color for dramatic effect’ in Gone With the Wind (MGM, 1939). The screenplay of Alibi also avoids excessive ‘talking.’ C. Gardner Sullivan, a prominent screenwriter for Thomas Ince in the silent era, worked to ‘pare the dialogue down to the bone’ in order to let the audience make inferences. In Alibi, characters often do not announce their relationships through dialogue, and this helps to avoid stagy, over-exposition.
The cast and crew also proved appropriate for ‘crime pictures.’ Chester Morris, a theatrical juvenile, became an instant star through his acclaimed performance. Though ending with a conventional moral, Morris’ charisma dominates much of the film. His scene stealing paved the way for anti-heroes of later gangster classics. Part of this energy stemmed from Morris’ sex appeal, which proved difficult for the film’s police heroes to counter. One fan magazine observed, “Morris can express more sex appeal simply by bending his head in a girl’s direction…than most heroes can in a hundred feet of amorous contortions.” Morris himself attributed his successful transition from stage to film to the timing of his facial expressions. He observed that most actors in early talkies spoke first and then began to perform an emotion in the midst of their lines. Morris claimed he “first set my face in reaction to the other character’s lines before I begin to speak. I communicate my response visually before I convey it verbally.” Watch for Morris’ subtle changes in expression before he physically delivers each line. This process often adds fluidity to his performance. Morris did not receive roles as ‘meaty’ as his lead in Alibi for most of his career, but he did appear as a convict in the sound classic The Big House (MGM, 1930) and later as a reformed convict heading the ‘Boston Blackie’ detective series of the 1940s. The director, Roland West, explored crime and suspense in other films as well, such as his silent adaptation of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat (United Artists, 1926). He would unfortunately become more famously associated with crime as an offscreen suspect in the possible murder of his lover, comedic actress Thelma Todd.
With wonderful restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive, correcting images based on stills from production files at Madison’s Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, this version of Alibi allows us to understand what so impressed audiences at the time of the film’s release. We can share in their wonder at one of the earliest and most successful straight dramas with complete sound on cinema screens. Even without projecting ourselves into the past, however, Alibi remains an enjoyable and suspenseful film in the present.