A Pitiless World

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

Roland West’s 1929 underworld drama “Alibi” posits a world in which there are few if any heroes. The protagonist, Chick Williams, played by Chester Morris, is initially seen being discharged from prison. He doesn’t seem like such a bad fellow and his claim that he was framed by the police may well prove true–especially after West gives us a taste of The Law and its methods. His police, both uniformed and in plain clothes are presented as a pretty dyspeptic lot. Always ready to conduct third-degree interrogations and convinced that any notion of reform is a fairy-tale.

In short order we learn that Williams is seeing a police sergeant’s daughter, played by Eleanor Griffith, and this doesn’t sit well with her father, who makes it clear that he wouldn’t be above framing Williams to put him back behind bars. What is especially galling to him is the fact that his wayward daughter has turned down a marriage proposal from his preferred suitor, an up-and-coming young detective sergeant.

Not long after Williams’ release a fur warehouse is robbed and a beat-cop is killed when he comes upon the heist. West cleverly hides the identity of the cop-killer. Was it Williams or some other member of the gang. Thus far the irate father and the jilted lover have been proven correct in one regard–clearly Williams had no intention of reforming. But the situation is complicated for the police by the fact that Williams is using the daughter as his alibi–they were were together at a show the night of the robbery. But the robbery and murder took place during the fifteen minute intermission, when Williams claims he was outside the theater smoking a cigarette. Can the police prove otherwise? To make doubly certain of his alibi, Williams marries the naïve young women.

West has thus far proven our hero to be a robber and a cad–but does that make him a killer as well? Nevertheless our sympathies now begin to subtly shift. True the police are shown to be angry, mistrustful and mean-spirited, but their opponents are also revealed to be cowardly and heartless liars who will use anything and anyone to escape punishment.

The police have an ace up their sleeves the person of Danny, played by the young Regis Toomey. Danny’s specialty is undercover work. Posing as a part-time broker and full-time alcoholic with a demented leer permanently plastered across his face, Danny has wormed his way into the gang and is so trusted that Williams even hopes to use him to reinforce his faltering alibi. Williams’ wife knows that Danny is a detective because she has seen him in conference with her father and her former boyfriend. Does she inform on him or keep silent? West has already introduced us to a secondary female character played by Mae Busch, a once-respectable society woman who left her husband for Williams’ mobster boss and has come to bitterly regret her folly. Will Griffith find herself in a similar situation?

Danny is unmasked, but inadvertently, thus allowing Griffith to retain the sympathy of the audience as a romantic young thing taken in by Morris’ surface charm. Toomey’s execution by Morris and two other gang members seems to go on forever and only ends when Morris shoots him in the back–just as the beat-cop had been during the fur robbery. Now everything is out in the open. If the cops are rotten, Morris is worse. His death, falling from a building ledge while attempting to flee the police should evoke no tears from the audience.

Toomey dies in the arms of his fellow officers and, oddly enough for a good Irish copper, dies without so much as a prayer on his lips. Even Rico Bandello managed to gasp an astonished “Mother of Mercy….” That Danny always was a tough little fellow.

 

 

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