Archive for DW Griffith

The Sunday Intertitle: Jimmy Jazz

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2022 by dcairns

We’re back on ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE (1915). There are later versions too — I would like to see them. A 1920 version stars Bert Lytell, a specialist in reformed cracksmen (he also played the Lone Wolf and Boston Blackie — but I have only seen him as Lord Windermere, care of Lubitsch). Eugene Pallette supports him. A 1928 job stars William Haines and Lionel Barrymore: colour me intrigued. THE AFFAIRS OF JIMMY VALENTINE appeared in 1942 with a reconfigured plot in which JV seems like a supporting character (Roman Bohnen plays him!). Bernard “Mad” Vorhaus directed this so I’d love to see it. There are others: the character’s fragile claim on the world’s mental real estate seems to have finally decayed in 1985 when some kind of no-named teleplay was extruded.

Detective Doyle — played by the ersatz/anticipatory Robert Cummings (centre, scowling) — is on the case. This iteration of the Butcher of Strasbourg seems rather stagey, indulging in a bit of fist-into-palm overemphasis, but the good thing about this is we don’t need an intertitle to translate it. The universal language: belligerence!

I feel like I sort of know the O. Henry story, and Doyle is like Jimmy’s Javert. We’ll see if I’m right.

Maurice goes macro for a BIG CLUE CLOSEUP. An incriminating cufflink.

The ambitious ECU is followed by some equally daring punctuation:

Psychic linkage via montage, as Jimmy (Robert Warwick) notices his missing link and indulges in some dramatic gesticulation of his own, setting his untethered shirtsleeve a-flapping. The crosscutting is pretty intense, and it’s based around an IDEA, two characters thinking about the same thing. And Eisenstein is still in short pants. This is way more sophisticated, in my view, than Griffith’s imperilled virgin/roughriding rescuer schema, and it now seems incomprehensible that David Wark G has been elevated to the status of sole master of this era of filmmaking. All BIRTH OF A NATION has over this one is sheer bulk.

Doyle has immediately tracked Jimmy to his lair and Tourneur repeats a set-up from earlier (economical, and I suppose acceptable since we want to instantly recognise the setting) with the ‘tec’s breath visible in the cold air. I guess we’re shooting this in New York and/or New Jersey. Yes, IMDb specifies the Peerless Studio in Fort Lee and also locations at Sing Sing, and I think it’s likely this is an NYC alleyway, though it’s possible the Garden State sported a few handy slums back in the day.

The same condensation of time that allows Doyle to reach Jimmy’s in nothing flat has allowed Jimmy to exit, but he’s left another clue:

I’m sure David Bordwell would agree that one positive effect of genres is the way they push certain kinds of innovation. The musical incited all sorts of formal experiments, while thrillers have a notable impact on film narration, structure, use of POV.

I guess the significance of this clue is not so much Jimmy’s dainty taste in ashtrays, but the fact that his butt is still smoking. I have seen Robert Warwick near-nude in NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS and can attest that his butt is indeed smoking.

Proof that it’s 1915: the false Robert Cummings favours his chums in the audience with a thoughtful glance. It’s subtle, but it’s there. It’s not a full-fledged Keystone-type EXPLICATORY MIME, but it’s the kind of audience awareness I’d associate far more with barnstorming melodrama than with the legitimate theatre.

Cummings/Doyle rushes to the window and peers out, but apparently sees nothing. If this were a later, still more sophisticated film, I would expect Tourneur to grace us with a POV shot displaying the precise form of nothing Doyle witnesses. But apparently that’s asking too much in 1915. You know the kind of thing I mean: in FARGO, burying the loot in the snow, Steve Buscemi looks left: endless vista of blank snowscape; looks right: another, precisely mirroring vista of blank snowscape. This is jokily pedantic since we can see his surroundings already, but it is CORRECT FILM FORM nevertheless.

Cut to an unidentified young man receiving a coded message from a gum-chewing kid. The code is easily broken, I feel. But who is this fellow?

TUNE IN NEXT TIME to find out — and watch along (or ahead) via the YouTube:

Jimmy the Gent

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 21, 2022 by dcairns


The flat view of the wall and windows, and the flat white backing provided by the sky (or a white screen, if it’s artifice, as seems probable), makes for a striking angle. Like the silhouette plays in the same director, Maurice Tourneur’s THE BLUE BIRD and later THE HAND OF THE DEVIL.

Then we have the high angle maze shot MT would return to in JUSTIN DE MARSEILLE (in that film, crooks are chased through the crooked corridors created by heaps of baggage in a railway station, as I recall).

Making this movie a compendium of effects MT would revisit, already in the first five and a half minutes. But let’s press on.

The camera pans but remains aloof aloft. The cast go into theatrical poses conveying ACUTE WATCHFULNESS, and then a very stark light is switched on to outline the thieves in what we might think of as an expressionistic manner, except that expressionism has not yet been come up with in the German cinema.

What the hell, it’s late, I’m tired, sidetracks are tempting…

There are two ways to approach a scene (both wrong, probably)… you can treat it as a unique dramatic opportunity and try to distinguish it with an individual visual idea… or you can apply your style to the entire film, in a oner (for instance, wide lenses, deep focus, chiaroscuro, long takes). You can of course mix and match these approaches and most directors worth their salt probably do. Tourneur here goes beyond the first option, coming up with MULTIPLE striking visual ideas per scene.

Another sidetrack: it’s my view that nearly everything is expressionist these days, if you’re looking at bringing out the emotion of a scene through filmic choices. Putting music on something, or using sound atmospherically, is inherently expressionist. Atmosphere = expressionism. Before CALIGARI, this was less apparent, but you could say that even Griffith’s pacey cutting was an expressionistic technique avante la lettre. You make the audience feel the excitment of a dramatic chase by editing it in an exciting way. And though the Russian montage school is seen as a different historical beast altogether, you can view it (as I do) as a different way of achieving related goals.

The high angle works great for a while, then MT starts breaking it up with quick cuts — a lamp is smashed — this starts a dog barking — the security guard reacts — the lookout fidgets.

The guard gets off his fat ass and investigates, throwing a switch to change the tinting from blue to amber, then plodding through the same high angle maze, with the crooks closing in on him from behind and ahead. They pounce, he draws his gun, and the chase reverses itself, a run and gun maze scene rendered hazy with gunsmoke.

And I finally noticed that it says 21 on the wall calendar. And this is the 21st! I’m glad I decided to fit in a blog post.

The guard blows his whistle at that window, the kops immediately arrive and nab the lookout, allowing Jimmy and the gang to escape.


The Sunday Intertitle: Slippin’ Jimmy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2022 by dcairns

So, having been rather busy, this week I unexpectedly got 25% busier, but that’s OK. Light blogging until the end of the month, I suspect…

Maurice Tourneur’s ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE from 1915, is a seminal work. Tourneur reprised a climactic sequence — a high angle view of characters running through a kind of maze — in 1935’s JUSTIN DE MARSEILLE.

The star is Robert Warwick, a stage actor whose dignified presence lends itself to the serious roles he played in Preston Sturges comedies (he’s studio boss Mr LeBrand in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS). The cast also includes one Robert Cummings, but not the one we know, the yet-unborn Butcher of Strasbourg. I’ll add this ersatz Cummings to my list of duplicates, along with the bogus Harrison Ford (1884-1957) and the fake William Holden (1862-1932). Although maybe, since all these guys came first, it’s the more famous versions we should be hailing as impostors.

The familiar story by O. Henry allows Tourneur to film on location in Sing Sing, by permission of the governor, who gets the first credit at the films beginning for his troubles. It’s a story of redemption or reclamation of regeneration as they quaintly called it, thus likely to appeal to those in charge of the incarceration business (which was not yet as much of a profit-making concern as it is now). Tourneur indulges his propensities for lowlife atmos and slashing shadows. Tourneur was really making the best American features of this era. Compare this movie to Walsh’s more celebrated THE REGENERATION or Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION and it’s indescribably more modern in appeal.

You can watch along here:

I think I’ll treat it as a serial, blog-post-wise, as I did with LORNA DOONE. A way to keep the blogging muscles in trim without spending hours at a busy time…