Monday, April 19, 2021

Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915)

Director: Maurice Tourneur                              Writer: Maurice Tourneur
Piano Score: Philip Carli (1993)                       Art Direction: Ben Carré
Starring: Robert Warwick, Ruth Shepley, Alec B. Francis and Robert W. Cummings

One of the early gangster pictures, Alias Jimmy Valentine helped set the stage for the numerous pictures about crime and the underworld that would flood theater screens in the pre-code thirties—as well as spawning two sequels, in 1920 and 1928. The plot comes from a 1903 short story by O. Henry titled, “A Retrieved Reformation,” and was adapted for the stage by Paul Armstrong in 1910 under the name Alias Jimmy Valentine. The director of the film, Maurice Tourneur is credited with the scenario, and the picture was shot in New York. The prison sequences were filmed in Sing Sing, in Ossining, New York, with the permission and assistance of Warden Thomas M. Osborne who plays himself in the film. It’s a tremendous piece of work, too, essentially a modern reworking of Les Misérables with a twist, but one that holds up well over a hundred years later. The film begins with a typical introduction of the actors and the characters they play. Robert Warwick is Jimmy Valentine, and he is seen both smiling in a tuxedo, and then dissolves to the same actor grimacing in prison. Actress Ruth Shepley is shown smelling flowers as she looks smiling into a mirror. Alec B. Francis, obviously playing a criminal, is shown peering around a door, while John Hines looks suspiciously out a window into an alleyway. Finally, police detective Robert W. Cummings is shown at the police station.

The story begins with a title card informing the audience that the criminal Robert Warwick lives a double life as a respected citizen during the day. He’s seen finishing up his workday at an office, and then walking out of the building and home to his apartment. He sets his alarm clock and emerges at midnight as Jimmy Valentine, meeting up with Francis and Hines to rob a bank with the assistance of D.J. Flanagan. While Francis stays as lookout, the other three make their way to the vault and Warwick quickly cracks it open. But while they are loading up the money the noise starts a nearby dog barking, which rouses the night watchman, who turns on the lights and begins inspecting the building. Everything looks all right, initially, until he flushes the men from their hiding spots, and after a brief chase he calls in the police and Francis is nabbed. But the other three men manage to slip out the back and escape. The next day Detective Doyle, played by Robert Cummings, finds a cufflink at the scene, which turns out to be Warwick’s. When Cummings shows up at Warwick’s apartment the criminal flees, but not before a coded message can be sent to John Hines warning him that Cummings may be on to them. Then Warwick and Flanagan hit the road.

Shepley, it turns out, is on the same train, and when Hines makes unwanted advances it is Warwick who steps in and saves her. But Hines won’t stop and Warwick is finally forced to throw him from the train, which in turn necessitates himself jumping off a short time later. Back home Shepley tells her father--Frederick Truesdell, who turns out to be the state’s lieutenant governor--the whole story. Hines survives his trauma long enough to tell the police everything before he dies, and Cummings then tracks down Warwick to the hotel he’s staying at and the expert safecracker of the heist is finally apprehended. At this point Warwick is sent to Sing Sing for ten years, and it’s here that Shepley turns up later, doing some charity work, and recognizes Warwick. Of course she thinks he’s been wrongly convicted after his gallant behavior on the train, and Warwick goes along with the idea until Truesdell eventually manages to get him pardoned. The crux of the film then becomes whether Warwick will be able to go straight and pursue a relationship with Shepley, or revert to his old life of crime and fall prey to Cunningham who has sworn to put him behind bars again, à la Javert in Victor Hugo’s classic novel—especially once Francis is released and wants to get the old gang back together.

The greatness of the film is primarily due to Tourneur, who makes some nice choices as director and as a result injects some real artistry into the film. In the beginning of the film he shows Warwick leaving his apartment building from behind, a deep focus shot through the open door, and holds on the crystal clear tenement buildings in the background while the actor walks all the way down the sidewalk and out of the frame. For the bank robbery, Tourneur sets his camera high up in a balcony and shoots the whole sequence in one continuous shot as the men make their way through the maze-like office. It’s a brilliant effect. In fact, the shot selection throughout the film is far more advanced that what someone like D.W. Griffith was doing at the same time. Griffith’s interior set ups were done in long shot, with the full room like a proscenium in view from floor to ceiling, whereas Tourneur prefers medium shots which feel far more natural and intimate, and give the film a much more modern sensibility. All of the actors are very good as well, and Warwick gives a splendid performance in the leading role. While the story is fairly predictable, it has a great climax and is very satisfying overall, but the vision is all Tourneur and that makes Alias Jimmy Valentine—like Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration from the same year—one of the great films of the era.

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