18 March 2013

Picture Snatcher

One of the things I learned after seeing a James Cagney triple feature at Film Forum during their 1933 series is that I would watch Cagney in anything. 

Two of the films, Hard to Handle and Lady Killer, were run-of-the mill Warner pictures with Cagney playing a variation of the bad guy with a big heart. In Hard to Handle, which also stars the excellent Ruth Donnelly, Cagney is a con artist who must come up with a scheme to get money after his business partner skips town with their funds. In Lady Killer he’s a former crook who gets a second chance as an actor in Hollywood. Both were fun but forgettable.

Picture Snatcher was by far the best of the three. In it Cagney plays Danny Kean, a gangster who upon release from prison tells his former associates that he wants to go straight and sets out to prove himself as a newspaper reporter. He shows up at the offices of the Graphic News, a trashy tabloid, to see the alcoholic city editor Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy) who had sent him a letter offering him a job when he got out of prison. McLean turns him down but when Danny overhears the editor-in-chief Grover (Robert Barrat) bemoan the fact that no one has been able to get a photo of a suicidal fireman whose wife has died in a fire along with her lover, Danny sees his chance. Claiming to be an insurance adjuster, Danny weasels his way past the fireman and steals his wedding photo thus securing a job as a picture snatcher on the staff.

Danny soon meets Pat Nolan (Patricia Ellis) a college student on a tour of the paper’s offices. The two fall in love only to find out that Alice’s father, Casey (Robert Emmett O’Connor), is the police lieutenant who originally captured Danny after shooting him six times. Danny wins Casey over by getting a rival paper to print a complimentary story about Casey, which gets him promoted to captain.

The ambitious Danny takes Grover up on an offer of a $1,000 reward to the man who can get a photo of a woman scheduled to be executed at Sing Sing. Switching places with a reporter from another paper (the Graphic News wasn't invited), Danny manages to get a shot of the woman in the electric chair with a camera tied to his ankle (based on the true story of Ruth Snyder, who was executed in the electric chair for the murder of her husband in 1928). After a mad chase by the cops, Danny delivers the front-page image and gets his reward but it comes at a cost. Casey is demoted and Pat leaves Danny.

Distraught and in trouble with the authorities, Danny hides out at the flat of Allison (Alice White), the Graphic News’ sob sister. Even though she’s dating Al, who Danny has become good friends with, she comes on to Danny. While in the process of rejecting her advances, Al walks in and catches them in an embrace. With no fiancée, job, or best friend, Danny must find a way to make amends and show that he’s more than just a picture snatcher.

Cagney is superb in the film. His delivery and energy are perfect and he injects just the right amount of compassion into the character, allowing the audience to feel sympathetic toward him. Ralph Bellamy, who I often find to be a bit wooden, is good here while the wonderful Alice White dances away with all of her scenes, especially when compared to the pretty but bland Patricia Ellis. She also takes her punches, literary. Poor Alice is shoved, punched, and thrown about by both Cagney and Bellamy. There is also a cameo by the always-entertaining Sterling Holloway as a journalism student who likes to pontificate about the grandness of journalism.

The script, adapted by Allan Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson from a story by ex-con Danny Ahern, is filled with snappy dialogue that keeps up with the breakneck speed of the film (which, by the way, was reportedly shot in 15 days). You get classic gangster gems like "That's the last rap I take for anybody. You crack and I turn canary." And racy ones like “I’m going to put on some silk so good that you can see right through it.” All of these are said in those classic New York accents that only seem to exist in films from the 1930s.

Picture Snatcher has it all—romance, gangsters, a sleazy newspaper, a nail-biting car chase, a major shoot out, and a character named Jerry the Mug. What more could you ask for?

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