Yes, everybody in sight is crooked – and, if you meet somebody soft-spoken and well-dressed, you can bet they want to smooth-talk you out of your cash. Even smarmy Joe (Ray Milland), who woos Blondell away from Cagney by getting something out of her eye (shades of Brief Encounter) and giving her a book of poetry, turns out to be a thief in pinstripes.
However, when the comedy turns to melodrama in the last 20 minutes, Bert himself risks his freedom and even his life to save the worthless Joe, just because he is married to the woman Bert himself loves, Ann. That’s chivalry, not chiselry …
Before the mood abruptly changes, most of the film, directed by Roy del Ruth, is very funny. There are moments of inspired silliness, like the pre-code scene where Cagney barges in on Blondell in the bath – before stuffing money into her spare bra. There’s also a lot of wisecracking dialogue between them, making this one of their most enjoyable movies together – though I think Footlight Parade is even more fun. Both characters combine toughness, down-to-earth wit and vulnerability, and the chemistry between them is a delight. As a fan of 19th-century poetry in general and Robert Browning in particular, I enjoyed the scene where Cagney decides to read a few lines from one of his poems – though unfortunately, due to the fact that I was giggling too much at his affected voice in this scene, I haven’t yet worked out which poem he is reading! If anyone knows, do tell.
This is very much a movie of the Great Depression, with the couple as the little man and woman up against the world – and forcing it to give them a living. The first con they play on a lecherous hotel guest is a perfect example of a crime where the audience is easily able to sympathise with the villains rather than worrying about their target. The victim is a dirty old man who let himself in for it by trying to grope Ann (Blondell), and also he is only hurt in the pocket-book, so who’s bothered about him? It’s also fun watching how cleverly the con is worked, as with other tricks later in the film – especially the one where Ann manages to get her own back on a criminal who earlier double-crossed Bert. Just about all the victims of their cons could be said to deserve it, except for a jeweller and his customer, and, let’s face it, they are far too rich for anyone to worry about in the world of this film.
The first time I saw the movie, I wasn’t keen on the way it suddenly changes tack, changing from frothy comedy to a darker crime drama, with a sequence where Cagney gets shot and wounded. However, after re-watching, I’ve changed my mind to some extent. Even if it was the Hays office who dictated this ending, I think it works well by showing the danger beneath all the jokey antics – and what a life of crime is really likely to lead to, wherever your sympathy lies. It never gets too dark, anyway. Even in the last scene, in a prison hospital after being shot, Cagney’s character is still joking, and still drawling “Hon…ey” to Blondell.