Alias Jimmy Valentine is another visually stylish film by Maurice Tourneur. This is an early gangster film, and it opens with an introduction of the cast that clues us in to the dual nature of Jimmy Valentine, a gentleman by day and a rogue by night.
This isn’t quite as tricky as what Louis Feuillade did in the Fantomas films starting in 1913, where the credits show all of the disguises the villain will be wearing in the film, but it’s clearly working a similar vein. The heroine is also introduced with a beautiful doubled image:
Maybe it’s stretching the point to see doubling in the shadow thrown by the gangster, Cotton, in his introductory shot, but the menacing image strikes a dark tone.
Perhaps most striking and clever of all is the credit for the third gangster, with the actor and character names scrawled above a window frame.
Early gangster films are not the rise-and-fall stories that became popular in the sound era but bad-men-redeemed-by-good-women stories. Thus the story of Alias Jimmy Valentine seems old-fashioned and the ending sentimental, if not downright corny, and yet Tourneur keeps it lively with his sense of light, shadow, composition, and staging. Just as in The Wishing Ring, the film has a remarkably modern look. His compositions and framing are always interesting, at least when his camera’s not trapped inside a room.
The scenes shot in Sing Sing were actually shot on location at the prison, and some of the external shots of tenement buildings seem to be on location as well, giving the film a naturalistic feel. But it’s by no means all naturalism. If the film (which has been preserved by the Library of Congress) is known for any one scene, it’s the safe-cracking scene, which is shot from above with an open set that looks like a labyrinth. To heighten the effect, we first see the gangsters descend into the underworld.
The use of light in this sequence to create atmosphere and highlight action is very effective.
There’s also a good use of tinting to tell us that the main lights have come on. Busted!
Tourneur could make effective use of depth effects as well, as in this sequence that begins when Jimmy, in the background, spots his crony harassing an unknown woman (0ur heroine) in a train car.
Jimmy drags his friend to the back of the train, where they tussle against a backdrop of ever-receding train tracks, while the heroine looks on in uncertain fear and uncertain light.
Jimmy eventually knocks his friend over the railing and onto the rails, and we get a shot of curvilinear lines that look very similar to the fatalistic shots of the rail yard from Fritz Lang’s Human Desire that I posted recently.
The movement of the train, controlled by these lines, makes the body disappear from view. The sense of motion here, in an otherwise static film, is very powerful.
We cut to an artful shot that shows us the damage Jimmy has done to his friend in his chivalrous effort to protect the strange woman.
But the film has a sense of humor too, and much of it centers around the affable gangster, Red. As a beer-lover, I’m no doubt exactly the demographic Tourneur had in mind when he included this scene of Red cooling his heels in a bar:
Likewise, when Jimmy and Red persuade Cotton to join them in giving up a life of crime for a job, they don’t spare him from mockery of his new work uniform.
Yet Tourneur is mindful of the social realities behind the choice the men are making between a lucrative life robbing banks and life in a lower-rung job.
The corny ending, while as beautifully designed and shot as everything else in the film, pulls it down a notch compared to The Wishing Ring in my estimation, but this is still a very enjoyable crime story. It is full of vivid details and strong characters, and Robert Warwick is a charismatic protagonist. He had a long career in Hollywood, ending up as a character actor in many later films, including Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and In a Lonely Place (1950). He made three films with Maurice Tourneur, including the next one on the agenda, A Girl’s Folly.