Monday, February 19, 2007
An awkward time for movies
By Edward Copeland
In my seemingly neverending quest to see all the major Oscar nominees of all time, I took advantage of Turner Classic Movies' annual 31 Days of Oscar programming to catch Alibi, which was nominated for best production and best actor for Chester Morris in the award's second year, 1928-29. Actually, as we now know, all nominees for that year are unofficial ones, since no nominees were actually announced, which is good for the Academy in the case of Alibi and Morris since it gives them their own alibi of plausible deniability for nominating this creaky relic, especially Morris' performance.
Directed by Roland West, who never helmed another film after 1931, according to IMDb, Alibi definitely bears the signs of its time when silents transitioned to sound. As a result, Alibi does contain some striking visuals, but once the characters speak, everything goes downhill. As for the story, imagine an early version of The Departed, only minus solid acting, writing or plotting. Alibi tells a cops versus crooks story where neither side is really that admirable. There aren't moles per se, as in The Departed, but the film does ask whose tactics are truly worse. Morris who got the Oscar nomination "unofficially" plays Chick Williams, newly released from prison who claims the police set him up. He even pursues romance with the daughter (Eleanore Griffith) of a police sergeant (Purnell Pratt) who is determined to send Chick back to prison by any means necessary.
The plot unfolds rather predictably and for every striking image, there are multiple cringe-worthy moments of acting, especially by Regis Toomey as a perpetually drunk Wall Street bigwig who gets embroiled in the plotting.
A plot twist, in a way, justifies his less-than-stellar portrait of a lush, but not enough to make the performance work. However, Toomey shows a lot more life than Morris does.
Alibi shows such a clash between the silent and talkie eras, that I'd be curious as to how it would have played if it had remained as a silent, but we'll never know.