Saturday, August 13, 2011

Unforgotten Crime, a.k.a. The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine (Republic, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was an download called Unforgotten Crime, which turned out to be a 54-minute 1950’s TV edit of a 1942 Republic film called Affairs of Jimmy Valentine (itself a remake of a 1936 film called The Return of Jimmy Valentine) and a real charmer, one of the few vest-pocket re-edits of Republic’s own movies that seems frustrating and makes one wish for a chance to see the full-length version (of which, alas, no print seems to survive). It begins with a woman narrator hailing the bucolic beauties of Fernville, where animals are not only pets but actually part of the people’s livelihoods, everybody knows everybody else and there’s virtually no crime (there’s a shot of the town’s police chief using a BB gun to shoot down two-dimensional cut-outs of people on his office shelf) — and then the narrator’s (Gloria Dickson) voice suddenly turns hard and mean as she announces, as part of the radio show she hosts, that former safecracker Jimmy Valentine is living in Fernville and her show’s sponsor, Titus Toothpaste, is offering a $10,000 reward for the first person who locates him.

The announcer, who at the height of her spiel sounds eerily like the beta version of Nancy Grace, is named Cleo Arden and is the girlfriend of reporter Mike Jason (Dennis O’Keefe, top-billed), who sets out for Fernville to earn the reward — and immediately runs into the principled opposition of Tom Forbes (Roman Bohnen), editor of the local paper, who thinks sleeping dogs should be let lie and, when Jason proudly boasts that the contest will “put Fernville on the map!,” Forbes understandably laments that he doesn’t want the little village “put on the map” because that will destroy everything that he and the other 4,000-plus people who live there like about it. It gets complicated when Forbes’ daughter Bonnie (a surprisingly Judy Garland-esque performance by Ruth Terry, who should definitely have gone on to biggers and betters) not only falls for Jason at first sight but sticks up for him against her dad … and ends up being fired from her job at the paper for doing so. Eventually it develops that [spoiler alert!] Tom Forbes actually is Jimmy Valentine, and his entire gang also lives in Fernville, where they’ve stayed quiet, built businesses, started families and remained resolutely law-abiding since they were released from prison after serving their sentences for the crimes they did commit.

The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine is a low-keyed film that sometimes seems to choke on its own quirkiness and the bucolic small-town atmosphere that Republic was good at (given that the studio’s stock-in-trade was its Westerns, it’s not surprising that they relished the ability to depict horse-drawn vehicles still trolling down Main Street even in a film set in the 1942 present!), but for the most part it’s quite charming, vividly acted and well structured (the script is by Olive Cooper and Robert Tasker from a story by Paul Armstrong, Jr.), grafting a murder-mystery plot onto the small-town comedy when Pinky (Harry Shannon), a local with a potential lead on Valentine’s whereabouts. The director is Bernard Vorhaus, not exactly a name to conjure with in cinema history but solid if a bit unimaginative, and the cinematographer is the great John Alton, whose work is actually pretty ordinary during the scenes that take place in daytime but who suddenly comes alive in the night scenes, finding offbeat angles for his camera and marvelous lighting effects (even if he and Vorhaus rather overdo the effect — previously done beautifully and subtlely by John Huston and Arthur Edeson at the end of the 1941 Maltese Falcon — of having vertical cross-rails, symbolizing prison bars, cast shadows across the characters whenever they’re about to be or are in danger of being incarcerated, rightly or wrongly) that hint at what he’d accomplish in some of the great noir films he would shoot later.

Eventually the murderer is revealed to be, not Valentine, but Mousey (George E. Stone), Jason’s assistant, who wanted revenge against Valentine and decided to kill Pinky (and later a teenage manicurist, a friend of Bonnie’s, who came into Jason’s room at the wrong time … ) and frame Valentine for the crime. It ends with Jason and Cleo returning to New York City, Jason winning the $10,000 reward but nobly donating it to a charity to help rehabilitate recently released convicts, and Fernville presumably returning to its bucolic existence with its citizens none the wiser that Valentine and his cohorts dwelled, and still dwell, among them. Unforgotten Crime is a marvelous movie — I really hope the longer version is discovered and reissued some day — and though it’s low-keyed and doesn’t hammer home its points, it has a lot to say about crime, criminals, rehabilitation, the media and a skeptical public that has largely bought into the “once a criminal, always a criminal” line and would be an interesting property for a remake today (with the Valentine character perhaps transmuted into a Sara Jane Olson type, never actually incarcerated or convicted of a long-ago crime, who’s uncovered by a sensationalist TV show and called upon to pay for a crime when, psychologically and even morally, she’s no longer the person who committed it).