They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

The title sounds reminiscent of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang – and the posters for this John Garfield movie tried to give that impression too, oozing theymademeacriminal2toughness and desperation. However, as so often in movies of the 1930s and 40s, the advertising is misleading, and this tale of a troubled young boxer wanted for murder is a very different film from the image Warner Brothers was trying to sell here.

Admittedly, the first few minutes are dark and powerful, almost giving an early foretaste of film noir. But the rest of the film has a more hopeful flavour than this moody opening. The intensity falls off  – although the film as a whole, surprisingly directed by Busby Berkeley between musicals,  is still very enjoyable. This was Garfield’s second movie and his first starring role – and it feels quite similar to Cagney movies like the previous year’s Angels With Dirty Faces, especially as it co-stars the Dead End Kids.

The film’s biggest flaw is that it also co-stars Claude Rains, wildly miscast as a New York cop. I don’t suppose this great actor ever looked or felt more uncomfortable in a role. Rains doesn’t seem even to attempt an American accent, except that he talks faster than normal, and it just sounds ridiculous when, in his clipped English voice, he has to say lines like: “That was one swell-looking dame.”  Rains’ character is  a frustrated detective who has been stuck on “morgue duty” for years as a punishment – something which might have felt all too close to home for Rains himself, who was reportedly forced to take this part or face a suspension by Warner.

The noirish opening minutes see Garfield’s character, New York boxer Johnnie Bradfield, win a world title fight and soulfully dedicate his win to his dear old mother – also informing the press that he doesn’t waste his time on drink and women. Unfortunately, within minutes of making this announcement, he is busy knocking back large quantities of booze and in the arms of his girlfriend, Goldie (a tiny part for Ann Sheridan – whose two-dimensional character might just as well be called “gold digger”.)

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Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

When you look at the list of Robert Wise’s movies, it seems amazing that he isn’t better-known – which is why it is so good that Joshua over at Octopus Cinema has organised a blog-a-thon about his work, to which this is a contribution.

somebodyposterSomebody Up There Likes Me, starring Paul Newman and Pier Angeli, is one of my favourites out of his movies that I’ve seen so far, and if anything it seems to get better with repeated viewings. I hesitated before watching  because, on the face of it, it’s a boxing movie – a biopic of world middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, based on his autobiography –  and I’m not a fan of the sport. However, it’s really far more than that,  showing how Graziano, originally called Barbella, grew up in poverty and dabbled in crime before turning his life around,  and the fight scenes, powerful though they are, take up only a relatively small part of this movie.

After first seeing the film on TV, I’m very glad I got hold of the DVD, since it has a good commentary track with detailed reminiscences by Wise himself as well as contributions from Paul Newman and Martin Scorsese. Film historian Richard Schickel mentions in the commentary that one reason Wise is sometimes overlooked might be that he isn’t identified with any particular genre, but worked in just about  all of them.  Bearing this out, it strikes me that this film alone touches on many genres in the space of under two hours – starting out as a cross between a gangster movie and a film about juvenile delinquents, then turning into a prison movie and briefly an army one before it really gets into the boxing story, which is also a romance.  The film focuses just as much on Rocky’s relationships with his mother (Eileen Heckart) and his girlfriend and later wife, Norma (Angeli) as it does on the boxing.  Indeed, the posters and lobby cards I’ve seen, possibly designed to persuade women to go to a boxing picture,  seem to go more on the romance than on the fighting.

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Winner Take All (1932)

I was keen to see this movie because I’m trying to see all of Cagney’s films – and, as this came next after The Crowd Roars, which is one of my favourites, I may have been expecting too much. To me this boxing movie, directed by Roy Del Ruth, feels a bit rushed and ragged round the edges, and it’s easy to see why around this time Cagney was getting fed up with Warner forcing him to make one quick movie after another, and repeatedly casting him as a hoodlum. In this movie they even give his character the name “Jimmy” (something they did again in the gangster comedy Jimmy the Gent), which can’t have helped him to avoid typecasting. 

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Spoilers below cut – and more pictures

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