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January 12, 2008

Alibi

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Roland West - 1929
Kino International Region 1 DVD

Edward Copeland's Best Actor Survey will probably be slanted towards debates on the best and worst Oscar winners of recent decades. Most of the films discussed will be those we have grown up watching or are readily available on DVD. Having an Academy Award is no guarantee that a film is available. Emil Jannings can be seen in The Blue Angel as well as his silent films made in Germany, The Last Command, one of his two winning performances is only on tape. Tape is the only way you can see George Arliss as Disraeli. It won't be until the March DVD release that many of us will see Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul, a performance that beat out the more readily seen Adolphe Menjou in The Front Page and Richard Dix in Cimarron.

If Alibi has any reputation, it is mostly due to the set design of William Cameron Menzies. The opening scene introducing Chester Morris as he is about to leave prison may remind some of the massive sets of Metropolis, especially when the prisoners march in line. Otherwise, the film seems to serve as the prototype for the kind of movies that Warner Brothers would crank out regularly in the Thirties. Chester Morris appears in retrospect to be a prettier version of James Cagney. The tough guy turned coward performance near the end anticipates Cagney's similar turn in Angels with Dirty Faces. It takes little to imagine Alibi with Cagney and Pat O'Brien instead of Morris and Pat O'Malley,

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Morris plays an ex-con who is accused of shooting a cop during a robbery. Among those vouching for his whereabouts is girlfriend Eleonore Griffith, playing the rebellious daughter of a policeman. O'Malley plays the detective in love with Griffith, and out to prove that Morris is a killer. Complicating things is an undercover detective played by Regis Toomey, who poses as a constantly inebriated playboy.

Alibi is one of the few films available by Roland West, and that unavailability of his work may keep him in Andrew Sarris' category of "Expressive Esoterica". That West worked with Menzies on the set, and Ray June as cinematographer, probably contributed to the visual look of Alibi. Too often the film betrays its stage origins with static shots of characters in conversation. The best moments are the shots of the oversized set, a point of view shot with the camera going through night time traffic, and the musical numbers which with the leggy showgirls. There is also the use of sound dramatically used, with the percussion of the policemen's nightsticks. What Alibi has is a collection of inspired moments, but not enough to make the difference between a classic and an old movie.

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Posted by peter at January 12, 2008 12:13 AM