by HELEN GEIB
I’m going to move forward to the 1920s after this post, but I can’t leave 1910s cinema behind without paying tribute to Maurice Tourneur and Alias Jimmy Valentine. Tourneur is my favorite, and after Griffith the most significant, director in the formative years of American silent cinema. He is primarily remembered today for the beautiful pictorial quality of films like The Last of the Mohicans and The Wishing Ring. While that reputation is well-deserved, it is only one side of this accomplished and innovative filmmaker.
A crime doesn’t pay urban melodrama, Alias Jimmy Valentine may seem a contrarian selection to spotlight among the films of a director acclaimed for pictures of rural Americana, but it is fully the artistic equal of his better known works. Alias Jimmy Valentine is about a reformed safecracker, his confederates, the woman he falls in love with and the detective who wants to bring him to justice. Although the plot is as melodramatic as that character line-up suggests, it is told with such verve and unfolds at such a lively pace that it feels almost modern. Tourneur’s direction is masterful, particularly in the editing rhythm and the composition of figures and objects within each scene.
The costumes and props are the only things that date the movie to 1914. It is years ahead of the artistic standards of its day. That is nowhere more pronounced than in the remarkably naturalistic performances by the principals, especially the actors playing the safecracker and his friends. The engaging performances and the enduring appeal of the crime movie story (there’s even a bank heist!) make Alias Jimmy Valentine a great introduction to Tourneur and to the films of the early feature era.