Jimmy Valentine (Robert Warwick) belongs to a gang of bank-robbers– his job is to crack safes and he is the best in the business. After a stint in Sing Sing, however, Jimmy sees the error of his ways and decides to live an honest life. However, his old nemesis Doyle (Robert Cummings), a surly detective, has a chance to haul Jimmy in on an old charge. Will Jimmy’s life of honesty go to waste? Or will he be able to bluff his way to freedom?
Note: I will also be comparing the 1945 Kurosawa film The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. Click here to skip to the talkie.
I’m not who you think I am.
Note: The short story that this film is based upon is commonly assigned in English class. If this is why you are here, please note that this film DOES NOT FOLLOW the original story.
Jimmy Valentine has been absent from the motion picture screen for over half a century now and it is a shame because the tale of reformation and safecracking is timeless. First, a little background.
The saga of Jimmy Valentine begins with an O. Henry short story published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1903 entitled A Retrieved Reformation. It told the tale of a master thief from Ohio who slips away from his life of crime and takes up an honest existence in Arkansas. However, the law has not forgotten and soon a relentless detective is chasing him down. (The short story is in the public domain and may be read for free online.)
The tale was adapted into a play by Paul Armstrong in 1910 and most movie adaptations take their plot from the play. (The original short story is less than ten pages long– not what you would call feature-length.)
This 1915 film was the first of many Jimmy Valentine films (all remakes and adaptations, no sequels) and it is the only pre-1930 version that survives at all. The 1920 silent remake has vanished and, more importantly, the 1928 version has also been lost. The latter is significant because it was MGM’s first talkie (well, the last two reels anyway) with William Haines and Lionel Barrymore as the male leads.
Sadly, even this 1915 version is not in pristine condition. Small snippets of scenes are missing from the film. However, 95% of a silent movie is better than nothing. I will bear the missing footage in mind as I review the film.
Jimmy Valentine (Robert Warwick) is part of a four-man bank robbery gang. He has the most important job: his fingers are so sensitive that he can feel the tumblers of a combination lock. No safe is safe!
Doyle (Robert Cummings) is a no-nonsense police detective who is determined to stop these bank heists. He gets the break he needs from Jimmy himself. You see, Mr. Valentine likes the finer things in life, including expensive cufflinks. He accidentally drops one of those distinct links at the scene of the robbery. Realizing that it is only a matter of time before Doyle comes calling, the gang splits up.
Jimmy and Cotton (David Flanagan), one of his associates, board a train for parts unknown. On that train is Rose (Ruth Shepley). Cotton takes a shine to her and begins to annoy her. Jimmy tries to make him behave but Cotton grows belligerent. The two men end up in a fist fight that ends with Jimmy throwing Cotton off the moving train, fatally injuring him. (Yikes! 1910’s heroes played rough!) Jimmy steals away. With his dying breath, Cotton rats out his former partner in crime, telling the police where he was headed. Jimmy is arrested and sentenced to a decade in Sing Sing.
(Tourneur obtained the cooperation of the real warden of Sing Sing, Thomas Mott Osborne, and was able to film some scenes inside the prison itself. Osborne was a prison reformer and a fascinating man in his own right.)
It would all end there but fortunately for Jimmy, Rose is the daughter of the lieutenant governor. Even better, she and her father are visiting the warden (not Mr. Osborne). They have come for demonstrations of the skills that landed the inmates in stir in the first place. First, they get a gander at a forger and then they opt to view the more gentlemanly art of safecracking.
Um, is this really how the lieutenant governor’s family spends their Sunday afternoons? Asking criminals to reenact their crimes? Where exactly was this going to end? A reenactment of an ax murder? A strangulation demonstration?
Jimmy finds the whole thing distasteful as well and refuses to perform. Rose recognizes him and her father intercedes before the warden can punish Jimmy. The lieutenant governor vows to get Jimmy a pardon. He was clearly framed by Cotton, who was just ticked off that Jimmy killed him. What a baby.
And, sure enough, the pardon comes through. Jimmy is a free man. He plans to start cracking safes again just as soon as he is able but first he calls on the home of his benefactor.
I’m just going to break in here and mention that there had to be more evidence against Jimmy Valentine than Cotton’s testimony. There was that cufflink that Doyle found, just for starters. Plus, Jimmy was clearly one of the usual suspects when it came to bank robbery. Pardoning him just because he was chivalrous to Rose strikes me as incredibly naive– and incredibly dangerous. I mean, Jimmy was a guilty as sin! You know that ax murder thing I mentioned before? What if he had been doing that?
Anyway, Jimmy stops by Rose’s house, meets her kid brother and sister, is made welcome… And he realizes that he doesn’t want to rob banks anymore. Rose’s father gets him a job at a bank and soon Jimmy and the surviving members of his gang are living the lives of honest citizens.
However, Doyle has not forgotten Jimmy Valentine and he receives word that Massachusetts wants him for an unsolved bank robbery. Doyle sets out to haul the erstwhile safecracker back to prison.
Will Jimmy end up in stir? Is his reformation real? See Alias Jimmy Valentine to find out.
Like all Maurice Tourneur films, Alias Jimmy Valentine is meltingly beautiful. The shots are imaginative, the lighting is gorgeous but the production keeps its feet firmly grounded in reality with appropriately gritty cities and, of course, Sing Sing.
Here is a gallery of Tourneur’s patented Things Silhouetted Against Other Things (plus bonus moody light from windows):
In 1915, the more restrained acting of films was becoming the norm but there were still notable holdouts. Tourneur had a weakness for stagy acting and this is one of the main flaws of the film. You see, the plot calls for a more intimate, gritty style of performance. It’s a story of theft, murder and redemption. The sweeping gestures just seem out of place.
The scenario of the film has a few holes. Since the short story the film is based on is, well, short, a considerable number of characters and scenes were added.
Here is what works:
The addition of Jimmy’s confederates (he purposely never worked with any in the original story) allows him to discuss the challenges he is facing as he lives an honest life for the first time.
The bank robbery at the opening of the film is suspenseful and interesting. The original story hinted at Jimmy’s methods but never got too specific. The film’s addition nicely establishes his skills.
Here’s what falls flat:
Having Jimmy’s love be the lieutenant governor’s daughter instead of just the daughter of a bank president. In the original story, Jimmy wins his pardon the old fashioned way: graft and corruption. In the film, as a possible concession to censors, Jimmy somewhat earns his pardon through chivalry. This makes the character more of a cliched gentleman crook and is not nearly as interesting.
The darker, more dangerous Jimmy in the films has potential but this angle is quickly abandoned as soon as he falls in love.
I also have a problem with how the ending was handled in the film. Obviously, a spoiler warning is in place.
O. Henry stories often featured amusing twist endings. In the case of A Retrieved Reformation, the twist is as follows:
Jimmy is well on his way to full reformation when the detective (called Ben Price in the story) arrives in town. Jimmy, Price and Jimmy’s fiancee, Annabel, all happen to be in the local bank when a small child is accidentally locked in the airtight vault. The new lock has no combination yet and there is no way to cut through the door in time. Knowing that Price can see him and knowing it will send him back to prison, Jimmy uses his safecracking tools to rescue the child. He is prepared to be arrested but Price denies knowing him and leaves town for good.
The film basically follows this approach but it makes a few changes that I think weaken the impact. The child gets locked in the vault and Jimmy springs into action. Jimmy in the films does not use tools to break into safes. Instead, he has a sensitive touch that lets him feel the combination click into place. He is rusty and to eliminate distractions, he blindfolds himself. He doesn’t see that Doyle and Rose are watching him. Jimmy only realizes that he has given himself away after the child has been saved. Doyle is ready to make the arrest but Rose pleads for Jimmy’s freedom and Doyle relents.
I have a few issues with this. First, Jimmy’s decision is less bold in the film because he has no idea he is being watched. In the story, he rescued the child knowing full well that it would mean an arrest (it is not stated plainly but he makes this clear by asking for the flower Annabel is wearing before going to work). This boldness was the reason that Price decided to let him go and eliminating it was a mistake. Second, by having Doyle relent after Rose’s pleading, it makes the whole twist ending less interesting and dynamic. In the story, only Price and Jimmy knew what was truly happening and their unspoken truce is what makes the ending so memorable.
Finally, the changes do not take into account Jimmy’s relationship with Rose. In the story, Jimmy meets Annabel after he has been released from prison and she has no idea of his criminal background. He could have found a way to explain away the odd tools that he used to break open the safe. In the film, however, Rose knows full well that Jimmy was an inmate of Sing Sing. She also believes his tale of being falsely accused. By having her see him breaking into the safe, the film opens up the question of just how she is going to react to the realization that Jimmy really was a criminal all along and that he lied to her. The problem? That question doesn’t get answered. We simply get a Happily Ever After.
Alias Jimmy Valentine is a beautiful film but the cinematography is pretty much the main reason to watch it. Contrivances stretch the plot a bit thin and the performances are not restrained enough to redeem it. It’s a solid C+ effort when a little bit more care would have yielded a Grade A film.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
Alias Jimmy Valentineis is available on DVD as part of the out-of-print Origins of Film box set. It is a pity since the set contains a lot of films unavailable elsewhere.
Note: I was going to do a Silents vs. Talkies feature using The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine from 1942 but the film was so positively wretched that I could not get past the first ten minutes. But then I got a better idea. Double Feature time!
As I was writing about climax of Alias Jimmy Valentine, I realized that the questions of identity and deception reminded me of another film: Akira Kurosawa’s 1945 feudal drama The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail.
I haven’t done a Double Feature in a while so let me just remind you of what it is all about. Sometimes, movies are better when they are paired. I try to pair up films that bring out the best in one another. Some have a similar or contrasting theme. Some cover the same period of history. Some just seem to fit.
In the case of Valentine and Tiger, both concern fugitives who must conceal their identities– and who escape in spite of (or was it because of?) being found out.
Akira Kurosawa remains one of Japan’s most revered and popular directors. He delivered classics like The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, The Throne of Blood and (my personal favorite) Red Beard.
However, all great directors must start somewhere and Kurosawa’s 1940’s work has finally become readily available in the U.S. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail was his fourth film, made during the end of WWII and subsequent Allied occupation. (Its feudal themes meant that it did not see release until 1952.)
The history of the film begins almost 800 years before. In the aftermath of the Genpei War (come on, doesn’t everyone want to learn about the Genpei War?), a young lord is betrayed by his brother and must flee, guarded by his faithful retainers. Kurosawa adapted a kabuki play based on their adventures and made a few tweaks of his own to the formula.
Since anything from Kurosawa is greatly studied, I am going to just give a brief outline of the plot and then move directly into a discussion of disguise and identity. Obviously, a spoiler warning is in place.
The story of Tiger concerns Yoshitsune (Hanshiro Iwai), a nobleman who is being hunted down by his brother. However, he is really more of a McGuffin since the real main characters of the film are Yoshitsune’s bodyguard, a warrior monk named Benkei (Denjiro Okochi, a veteran of the Japanese silent film industry!); a zany porter (Kenichi Enomoto), who is something of an audience surrogate; and Togashi (Susumu Fujita), who commands a checkpoint and is charged with arresting Yoshitsune.
Benkei wants to bluff his way past the checkpoint. He and his companions are disguised as wandering priests and their lord is dressed as their porter. After being questioned by Togashi, Benkei and his party are allowed to pass. But then disaster strikes! Someone recognizes Yoshitsune. Without hesitation, Benkei beats his master with a staff. It would be unthinkable for a loyal bodyguard like Benkei to raise a hand to his master. Togashi lets the party go.
Of course, there is much more to the story and this is where the ideas of identity and acknowledgement come in. You see, Kurosawa adopted the popular opinion that Togashi was not fooled. He knows exactly who Benkei is but chooses to let him pass because, let’s face it, no one has ever tried harder to save their master. (Donald Richie has a wonderful breakdown of this dynamic in his book The Films of Akira Kurosawa.)
Richie points out that Kurosawa even takes things one step further. Togashi knows and is being merciful but he also makes sure that Benkei knows that he has been found out. So the film is really a performance within a performance within a performance. Benkei and Togashi continue their cat and mouse game for the benefit of their spectators but they have a second game beneath the surface purely conveyed by body language. (Of course, Okochi’s silent film experience would have been invaluable for this sort of thing.)
The casting choices are also interesting. In real life, Yoshitsune was 30 and Benkei was 34 at the time of their deaths (Yoshitsune was an outlaw for two years). However, when the film was made, Denjiro Okochi was 47 and Hanshiro Iwai was only 18. This age difference gives the relationship a paternal flavor and Yoshitsune’s obvious youth makes him more vulnerable and sympathetic.
One criticism leveled against the film is that the comedy relief from Kenichi Enomoto is jarring and out of place in a serious production. I have an enormous fondness for funny little men (I like silent movies, remember?) and I thought Enomoto added just the right amount of humor to the film. I enjoyed his character and performance and would have missed him if he had been cut. In the end, all I can do is say that I agree wholeheartedly with Togashi.
The idea of a fugitive being let off the hook because he is just too amazing to arrest… Well, it looks like culture and time period is no boundary. Benkei and Jimmy Valentine don’t have anything in common– except for the fact that their inner nobility makes them arrest-proof! Not a bad quality to have, really.