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by Alfred Vohrer
An Alibi for Death, directed by Alfred Vohrer, is a striking thriller, shot entirely in Vienna, with a hybrid mise-en-scène, a welcome international touch and a (not too) subtle feminist character, although it also includes a certain (not always) understandable basic naivety.
The (almost) perfect murder
If, during the Second World War in Austria – where, unfortunately, there was little freedom of expression – it was usual to produce mostly musical comedies, almost all resembling each other, then, immediately after the end of the war, people became more open to new forms of filmmaking (it is not by chance that avant-garde cinema, which is nowadays well developed here, has its origins in the aftermath of the Second World War), with a closer look at foreign cinema. In making a film like this An Alibi for Death (original title: Ein Alibi zerbricht), director Alfred Vohrer drew heavily on what had been made in previous years both in France – the true and undisputed home of polar – and in the United States, where Alfred Hitchcock had long since established himself, and his countryman Billy Wilder, before devoting himself almost exclusively to comedy, had excelled in several noirs that went down in history.
The result is a striking detective story, shot entirely in Vienna, with a hybrid mise-en-scène, a welcome international touch and a (not too) subtle feminist character, although it also features a certain (not always) understandable basic naivety.
The story, however, is that of the brilliant lawyer Maria (played by an excellent Ruth Leuwerik), who has to defend an engineer accused of running over and killing a man with his train. When the defendant tells her that, on the contrary, it was two men who pushed the victim onto the rails, she starts to question and investigate on her own, discovering an increasingly disturbing reality.
It does not aim for final or sudden twists, An Alibi for Death. Similarly, it does not inform the audience right from the start about the real culprit (as the master Hitchcock used to do). The director, for his part, makes the audience identify in every way with the protagonist, embracing 100% her point of view and experiencing with her the same emotions. This operation is decidedly successful, both in terms of the characterisation of the protagonists (specifically, Maria herself and her husband Günther, played by Peter van Eyck), and in terms of a direction that pays attention to detail and makes close-ups and subtle mirror plays its greatest strengths, and – and this is probably the film’s real peculiarity – for the music by Peter Thomas, studied down to the last detail and perfectly able to change tone abruptly depending on the situations in which one finds oneself. And so, if at first we hear a melody that reminds us so much of the romantic Hollywood comedies of the 1950s (complete with elegant pan shots showing us warm and cosy homes), immediately short string notes suggest that something terrible is about to happen.
And Alfred Vohrer, for his part, wanting to create something that had already been doing so well for several years abroad, was attentive to even the smallest and (seemingly) insignificant detail. Despite this, unfortunately, his An Alibi for Death does have some flaws. And that has to do with the screenplay. If, in fact, every single moment, as well as the very relationship between the protagonist and her husband are so well written, it is the story itself that, on the whole, is not very convincing. And this is due precisely to a huge coincidence within it that, precisely because it plays such a central role, soon makes the film lose credibility. What a pity.
Yet such an ‘annoying’ element did not prevent An Alibi for Death from becoming, precisely because of this special character and stylistic elegance, a veritable cult within Austrian cinema.
Original title: Ein Alibi zerbricht
Directed by: Alfred Vohrer
Country/year: Austria, Germany / 1963
Running time: 97’
Genre: mistery, crime, noir
Cast: Ruth Leuwerik, Peter van Eyck, Charles Regnier, Sieghardt Rupp, Hannelore Elsner, Dieter Klein, Michael Janisch, Fritz Schmiedel, Elisabeth Stiepl, Klaus Münster, Guido Wieland, Mario Kranz, Walter Regelsberger, Herbert Kersten, Elisabeth Epp, Alfred Vohrer
Screenplay: Stefan Gommermann, Werner P. Zibaso, Herbert Reinecker
Cinematography: Friedl Behn-Grund
Produced by: Dr. Herbert Gruber Produktion, Sascha Verleih