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.
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:
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.
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…
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
Run Time: 1 hr, 5 Min
You can watch it for free: here.