Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: gangster movies

The Black Hand (1906)

This short from Biograph disproves the commonly-made claim that “Musketeers of Pig Alley” was the first gangster movie. Unlike that movie, however, it shows little noble or romantic in the behavior of immigrant criminals, instead emphasizing the decency of the police and of the victims.

The movie consists of just a few shots, mostly with the action staged at quite a distance from the camera. The first shot is somewhat closer, however, and gives us a view of the villains of the story as they write out a note demanding extortion money from “Mr. Angelo,” threatening him with property destruction and the abduction of his daughter if he fails to comply. The gangsters are clearly marked as Sicilian in their attire and appearance, and their poor education is emphasized in the badly spelled ransom note. Read the rest of this entry »

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Regeneration (1915)

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, sponsored by Flicker Alley and hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen. As it happens, our sponsor Flicker Alley offers a DVD with this movie and “Young Romance,” which I reviewed last week on it. For those who want to see it for free, here is the Worldcat link for that DVD in libraries throughout the world: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/50865456

 history-2015-flicker-alley-06

Urban criminals have been part of cinema at least since “The Bold Bank Robbery” and “Capture of the ‘Yegg’ Bank Robbers” – both follow-ups to Edwin S. Porter’s smash hit “The Great Train Robbery.” Many of the tropes now familiar to the genre were established when D.W. Griffith made “The Musketeers of Pig Alley.” Raoul Walsh, who learned filmmaking from working for Griffith, returned to the theme for his first feature, “Regeneration,” and in doing so quite probably made the first feature-length gangster movie. The similarities between “Musketeers” and “Regeneration” are pronounced – both involve the redemption of tough guys who’ve grown up in a harsh environment, and both emphasize the human side of the underworld, drawing on the audience’s desire to sympathize with the criminal.

 Regeneration

This movie may confuse modern fans, however, because rather than spending the bulk of its length depicting its protagonist’s criminal career, it chooses to focus on his efforts to rehabilitate himself (his “regeneration”). This can partly be explained by the source material, a book called My Mamie Rose, by Owen Frawley Kildare. This book is a fairly typical “conversion narrative” from the point of view of a former hoodlum gone straight, who wanted to tell of “the miracle that transformed me.” Unlike most such narratives, it isn’t Jesus Christ or a particular church that Kildare credits with his salvation, but the love of a woman named Marie Deering. The real Marie Deering died of pneumonia in 1903, the same year Kildare wrote his autobiography. It was popular, especially among reform-minded progressives, who held Kildare up as an example of the basic decency inside of every criminal, and gave rise to a stage version by 1908. In 1915, William Fox, a successful Nickelodeon entrepreneur who was breaking into movie production (read up on Fox at Once Upon A Screen’s contribution to the blogathon), bought the movie rights and handed the direction to Raoul Walsh.

 Raoul Walsh

Walsh was just starting out his career at this time, and no doubt jumped at the chance to direct the movie version of a popular book. He had worked with Griffith on a number of short films, and was also familiar to movie audiences as an actor. He had played the role of John Wilkes Booth in Griffith’s runaway hit “The Birth of a Nation” (in what I consider to be one of the most palatable scenes in that movie). Now he would take on the challenge of a feature length film with a guaranteed audience among the book’s fans. Fox was a holdout for making movies on the East Coast at a time when much production was moving West, but no doubt the gritty locations of New York strengthened this movie’s impact.

 Regeneration1

Regeneration opens in the Bowery area of New York city, with a casket being loaded onto a hearse. This is the body of the mother of our hero, called Owen Conway in this version, and played by Rockliffe Fellows (later in “Rusty Rides Alone” and “Monkey Business” with the Marx Brothers). Or, at least he will be, once he’s done growing out of a series of child actors. He’s taken in by the neighbors, who use him as child labor and an occasional punching bag. Owen and his “family” wear some of the rattiest clothes you’ll ever see on film, and the surroundings are consistently grimy, and random extras in the area are deformed or ugly. This is not a nice childhood. By the time he’s twenty five, and has transformed into Fellowes, he’s the leader of a gang, by virtue of his strength and cunning, and his adherence to the codes of the street.

 Regeneration2

Now into the story comes an ambitious young District Attorney, played by Carl Harbaugh (also in Walsh’s lost version of “Carmen” and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” with Buster Keaton), who has vowed to clean up crime in the city. His dinner party includes young social butterfly Marie Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson, a Swedish actress, who went on to “Seven Keys to Baldpate” and “Sunset Boulevard“), who, at this stage in her development, thinks that seeing some real live gangsters would be exciting, so he takes them all out to a low-class nightclub/beer hall/vaudeville, where he is rapidly recognized and assaulted by the patrons. Owen watches this all, at first with disinterest, but, after he notices the girl, he steps in and breaks up the fight, saving the slumming socialites from the consequences of their actions. Deering is now convinced that the people living in the tenements need someone to show them the way out of poverty and hardship, and volunteers to work at a local mission, where (of course) she runs into Owen again. Owen starts coming around to the mission more, and disassociates himself from his old gang.

A thrilling scene takes place about midway through the film when Deering takes her charges on an outing on the ferry (where are they going, Staten Island? Not that uplifting, if you ask me, but maybe things were different then). Skinny, one of Owen’s old gang, comes along for the ride and carelessly starts a fire when he throws his cigarette into some rope. The burning ferry becomes a smaller version of the Titanic, with panicked passengers hurling themselves into the drink. Owen manages to save some kids, and the intertitles tell us that no children were killed during the disaster. Years later, Walsh told a humorous anecdote about this scene – that several of the women actors who lept from the ferry had no underwear on, and he and the editor had to draw them onto the film in post-production, due to the way their skirts flew up when jumping into the water. It’s a cute story, but not likely, since the long shot he uses here doesn’t allow the eye to catch that level of detail.

OK, Raoul, now tell me what they're wearing.

OK, Raoul, now tell me what they’re wearing.

Of course, Owen’s old life catches up with him, first, because the D.A. (who is not at all a likeable character, even if he does represent the forces of law and order) is still hoping to get Deering off the charity kick so she’ll marry him, and starts to snoop around to find out about this young punk who shows such an interest in her, and partly because his old colleague Skinny knifes a cop and comes running to him for hiding. It’s the last portion of the movie in which we get all the violence and excitement we expect in a gangster movie, with cops raiding the gangsters’ hangout, nightsticks thrown, guns blazing, and Skinny threatening to do goodness-knows-what after he’s kidnapped Marie. There’s also a marvelous stunt when Skinny tries to escape his fate by hand-over-handing his way across a laundry line tied between two towering tenement buildings. I don’t usually worry overmuch about “spoilers,” but in this case I think the ending is worth preserving – it has elements of redemption but also tragedy.

Regeneration4

Sorry, hipsters, this is what a beer growler really looks like.

Narratively, this movie has a lot in common with the Western genre. It’s very easy to imagine the same story told in California or Arizona: A man is redeemed from his savage, masculine life by the love of a more civilized woman, but has to return to his natural skills when her life and honor are threatened by the forces of his former world. Stylistically, it is very much of the more “advanced” kind of feature we’re getting used to here at the second half of 1915. There is good use of close-ups, lots of different camera angles, cross-cutting, iris shots, zooms, and a generally “freer” camera, that doesn’t feel as locked down as most of the movies of a year or more before. I also noticed a very sophisticated approach to intertitles: where they used to come before the action they described, now they often interrupt and action or explain it right after the fact. There’s also some great depictions of New York’s Bowery district nearly six decades before CBGB and the Ramones made it a playground for kids like me. Note especially the “growlers” (actually dented metal pails) of beer the residents prefer to drink from. The movie has wonderful style and is emotional evocative, even 100 years later. Reviews at the time emphasized its realism and humanity, and John McCarty, writing in Bullets over Hollywood, noted the debt that Marlon Brando’s character and performance in “On the Waterfront” owed to this movie and its spirit of redemption within a world of crime. Folks who enjoy gangster films will find it more than a curiosity.

Director: Raoul Walsh

Camera: Georges Benoît

Written by: Owen Frawley Kildare (book), Carl Harbaugh & Raoul Walsh (screenplay)

Starring: Rockliffe Fellowes, Anna Q. Nilsson, Carl Harbaugh, James A. Marcus, William Sheer

Run Time: 72 Min

I have not found it for free to watch on the Internet. If you do, please post a link in the comments.

Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915)

At least since “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” gangsters have fascinated American filmmakers, and many of the very best movies of any era have focused on crime and criminals. This despite a moral code that frowns on any attempt to “glamorize” the criminal lifestyle, and various levels of censorship, from official state boards to the Hays Code, that have discouraged it. Crime movies are hardly unique to the USA, of course, but the romance of the gangster seems to have a particularly American spirit to it. The gangster is an individual who succeeds due to toughness and a keen wit, in spite of the disapproval of society. Like the cowboy, much of his success is dependent on his readiness with a gun. Like the sports star, he often comes from humble beginnings and has limited education. Like the USA itself, he bows before no King.

This movie was remade in 1920, 1928, and 1942 (and people say there are too many remakes today!), but this was the first time the story was adapted to the screen. The director is Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques, for those more familiar with sound classics), who had gotten his start in France, but wisely came to the US at the beginning of World War One, when the French film industry was sacrificed to the war effort. Even at that early time, Tourneur was impressed by the state of American filmmaking, saying it was at a higher level than in Europe. I’ve discussed some of his work before, in “The Wishing Ring,” from 1914. I haven’t been able to find out who his cinematographer was for this picture, which is too bad, because it includes some of the best photography I’ve seen from the period. A lot of time went in to setting up some of these shots, so they were obviously important to Tourneur, perhaps even conceived by him, but it’s a shame not to have a record of who actually crafted them.

Alias Jimmy3

The story is of a man with a double life. Robert Warwick (later in “The Life of Emile Zola” and “The Awful Truth”) plays Lee Randall, “a respected citizen” whose underworld alias is “Jimmy Valentine.” I was a bit surprised at the Anglo-American name for our gangster hero, especially since Warwick looks somewhat Mediterranean in his Valentine guise, but this may have been meant to enhance audience sympathy, since audiences were generally assumed to be white (Anglo) males. His “respected citizen” persona apparently doesn’t earn much scratch, because he lives in a one-room flat in a tenement, but luckily he’s been gifted with hands that can “feel” the combinations to safes. We watch a heist in a fascinatingly labyrinthine bank from a high, diagonal angle:

Image from "Dreamland Cafe"

Image from “Dreamland Cafe

His gang gets caught by the night watchman, Jimmy/Lee manages to get away, but he gets into a fight with one of his cohorts who macks on a girl on a train, and he gets ratted out in return. Again, it’s his good fortune that the girl in question was the daughter of the Lieutenant Governor, because she arranges for his release from Sing Sing prison. But, not before we get quite a bit of footage of the place and its prisoners. During one march-past, several prisoners hold their caps over their faces, probably not wanting to be recognized on film. As a result of this genuine use of location footage, we see a much more ethnically diverse cast of extras than was usual at the time.

Alias Jimmy1

Anyway, the Lieutenant Governor gives Jimmy a job at his bank, and Jimmy convinces his friend Red to stop scamming free drinks and join him as a watchman. Pretty soon, he’s a respected cashier with responsibility for large quantities of cash. But, inspector Doyle, the man who caught him the first time, is hot on his tail for an earlier job, and soon his old buddy Avery shows up with ideas about robbing the bank he works at. Just when it seems like our hero has resisted temptation and covered up all the evidence of his past life, one of his boss’s tykes manages to get locked in a vault, the combination to which is inconveniently on a train out of town. The child is running out of air…

 Alias Jimmy Valentine

In spite of the contrived ending, I found the movie pretty enjoyable and even suspenseful at times. We’ve definitely entered a period where editing and camera movements add to the story structure. This movie actually came out only a few weeks after “The Birth of a Nation” premiered, and it is technically superior in some ways, although I should note that Tourneur considered D.W. Griffith an important inspiration and probably learned a lot of his tricks from Griffith’s early Biograph work. For example the interesting inter-cutting of Lee meeting with the respectable family and Red in a disreputable bar reminds me of Griffith and “A Corner in Wheat” in particular. I’ve already mentioned the photography; there’s a good use of light here, with an emphasis on silhouettes that is reminiscent of his son’s later film noir work. The many barred windows we see in Sing Sing add to that effect.

Director: Maurice Tourneur

Starring: Robert Warwick, Ruth Shepley, Alec B. Francis, Johnny Hines.

Run Time: 1 hr, 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.