It might be included in the Warner Gangsters Collection 3 box set – but the James Cagney movie Picture Snatcher, directed by Lloyd Bacon, is really only a gangster movie in the loosest sense. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if there are any true gangster movies in this collection, since none of those I’ve seen so far really fit the bill. Not that I’m complaining, as they are all fascinating to watch anyway.
This film is a very slight offering and I don’t have all that much to say about it, but, as I’d eventually like to write at least something on this blog about all of Cagney’s movies, here are a few thoughts on this one.
The opening scene sees Cagney’s character, Danny Kean, being released from Sing Sing prison, and the rest of the movie follows his bid to “go straight” by working as a newspaper photographer. The irony, though, is that Danny takes a job with the sleaziest tabloid imaginable, and uses all his finely-honed skills as a thief in the course of his new job. For him, “snatching” photographs doesn’t necessarily mean wielding his camera – he could be literally stealing them from somebody’s wall and stuffing them down his shirt. “Well, I’ve got to earn an honest living, haven’t I?” he explains disarmingly after one such escapade. The newspaper business doesn’t strike me as being particularly realistically portrayed, but the newsroom set is astonishingly good – and I also loved the scenes of typesetters working in hot metal.
Most of the film is a comedy, but, as so often with these early Warner Brother movies, it does have some scenes of melodrama woven in, including the inevitable shoot-out near the end. There is also some dark subject matter, notably Kean’s bold attempt to take a photograph of a woman being executed in the electric chair, using a hidden camera strapped to his ankle, something based on a real news story of the time. There’s no serious consideration here of the question of capital punishment – it’s just another story and another sales opportunity – but the very fact that this kind of material is included gives this part of the movie a somewhat daring, edgy feeling.
At just 77 minutes, the whole film moves at a breathless pace and there is never a dull moment. It’s all rushed and a bit rough around the edges – reportedly filmed in just 15 days – but great fun to watch. The dialogue is also enjoyably sharp, with not a word wasted.
Danny might be a reformed gangster, but he does a lot of things that conflict with the image, notably having a bath full of lavender as soon as he gets home from jail. He is extremely loyal to the man who hires him, drunken City editor ‘Mac’ McClean ( Ralph Bellamy), and repeatedly refuses the advances of Mac’s girlfriend, problem page editor Allison (Alice White), who throws herself at him in a number of sexy pre-Code scenes.
Determinedly avoiding Allison, Danny is far more romantically interested in a university student who comes to look round the newspaper offices, Pat (Patricia Ellis), who, by an amazing coincidence, turns out to be the daughter of the policeman who put him inside, Lieut Casey Nolan (Warner stalwart Robert Emmett O’Connor). Although there is no discussion of exactly what Pat is studying or how her course is going, I was impressed that the working-class heroine of a 1930s Warner movie is a university student at all!
The friendship between Bellamy and Cagney’s characters is appealingly portrayed, and, looking at how handsome the young Bellamy was, I’m quite surprised that he never made it as a leading man in movies. Mac’s drink problem of course ties in with the long tradition of journalists as heavy drinkers – something which goes right back to 18th-century Grub Street, and which was still a reality when I started out in journalism in the UK in the early 1980s. As with the execution, there’s no serious treatment of the subject of alcoholism – but, late on in the film, when Danny has lost his true love and is hitting the bottle in turn, it’s Mac who goes into the bar and drags him out, telling him that he has given up drinking himself.
I wouldn’t claim this film to be any kind of masterpiece, but I enjoyed it all the same – and would now like to see more of Bellamy’s work, since up to now I’d only known him as one of the grumpy old guys in the Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places. I know that he and Cagney were lifelong friends, and, as with Cagney and frequent co-star Pat O’Brien, that real-life relationship helps to add a convincing warmth to their scenes together.