Alibi is awkwardly suspended between the gliding camera of silent cinema and the stagnant medium-shot of early talkies. The split is fitting, since Rowland West’s half-stylish, half-creaky gangster saga is built on such clashing opposites as Art Deco luxury and underworld seediness, elliptical montage and claustrophobic staginess, and, most interestingly, law and crime. The film peaks early with the release of Chick Williams (Chester Morris) from prison, a sequence shaped from rhythmic sound designs and Langian spatial moves; tracking shots guide him from the big house to the nightclub where the old gang awaits, along with the first of the many gratuitous musical numbers. That his fiancée Joan (Eleanor Griffith) is the daughter of police sergeant Manning (Purnell Pratt) and ex-girlfriend of detective Tommy (Pat O’Malley) scarcely makes his stab at an honest life easier, and, when it is revealed that the police unashamedly pinned a phony crime on Chick to lock him up, the film suggests a fascinating mix of audience sympathies. Even when Joan realizes that Chick really is the cold-blooded killer her father warned her about, Alibi maintains an intriguingly ambiguous moral barometer, sketching a stark, mostly nocturnal world of violence where cops and criminals are often separated only by the uniforms they wear. Unfortunately, much of the film suffers from the languid ponderousness so common in the toddling years of sound cinema, where actors try even the most hardened movie buff’s patience with puffed-up enunciation before a nailed-down camera; when faux-drunkard undercover agent Regis Toomey goes on what feels like a 10-minute death scene, the tension leaks out of the picture as in a punctured balloon. (Nowhere is the divide between its striking eye and its stodgy mouth more obvious than in the sequence where Manning and Tommy come to resemble the killers they’re trying to bring down while bullying a confession out of a squirming prisoner.) West’s film has a place in the founding wave of American gangster movies, but his images deserve better than line deliveries closer to jazz singers than to little Caesars and public enemies.
The inconsistency of the images hints at sourcing from tattered prints, with ghosting effects especially in the stage-bound indoors scenes. The soundtrack is a mess of hisses and cracks that renders a good deal of the dialogue close to inaudible.
An alternately arresting and creaky curio for students of the gangster genre.