Danny Kean (James Cagney) is fresh off of a prison sentence and has a long track record of criminal involvement. This time, though, he’s determined to become an honest citizen. Danny is hired by Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy) to work as a photographer for a local newspaper with a somewhat seedy reputation, but he’s happy with the gig because he sees the potential to become a serious journalist – something he says he’s always dreamed of.
When a group of high school students comes to visit the paper, McLean puts Danny on duty to give the group a tour of the place. Danny then falls for one of the group members, Pat Nolan (Patricia Ellis)… who also happens to be the daughter of the officer who put him in jail. Though extremely skeptical of Danny’s intentions, Pat’s dad warms up to the idea and becomes convinced that Danny is a stand-up guy.
But again, things take a turn for the sour. Danny uses his connection to Pat to weasel his way into an execution, where he takes a picture to be published in his paper – a big no-no according to the police. Pat’s dad is demoted as a result, and Danny is no longer allowed to see Pat. And at the same time, one of Danny’s old crime cronies, Jerry the Mug (Ralf Harolde), gets in hot water after killing two policeman.
Will Danny return to a life of crime, or will he help solve the investigation into his former buddy Jerry and win back the girl? Lloyd Bacon directs Picture Snatcher, a 1933 crime drama from Warner Bros. The film was adapted by Allen Rivkin (1947’s Dead Reckoning) and P.J. Wolfson (1947’s The Perils of Pauline) from a story by Danny Ahern, with additional dialogue by Ben Markson. Ahern’s story also served as the inspiration for 1942’s Escape from Crime, in which Richard Travis portrays the criminal-turned-photographer.
I purchase this film blindly on Amazon in order to meet the requirements for the “$25 and it ships free!” deal (which seems to always rope me into buying more cheap DVDs!). I had no clue what it was about and chose it for three reasons alone: James Cagney, a beautifully illustrated cover and the Warner Night at the Movies feature. I’ve discussed my love for this feature in the past when I discovered it on my library’s copy of Watch on the Rhine (1943), and it certainly doesn’t disappoint on the Picture Snatcher dvd either. The shorts included here are a trailer for I Loved a Woman (1933), a short “Machine Gun Kelly” newsreel, a live action musical short titled Plane Crazy and a Merrie Melodies cartoon short titled Wake Up the Gypsy in Me.
As for the film itself, it’s just as satisfying as the lovely feature that precedes it. The characters (Danny and McLean especially) are full of wit, full of fun and seem to enjoy their work even when it gets hectic or stressful. Their field of printing scandalous pictures and stories might not be the most honorable career choice, but it’s quite clear that they’re just a bunch of hard-working people, trying to do the best that they can with what they have until a more legitimate opportunity comes along. This becomes particularly clear at the end of the film, when Danny and McLean get involved in the Jerry the Mug fiasco. They may not have always acted as completely upstanding citizens, but they’ve got good hearts and good intentions for their futures.
The subject matter itself is even more relevant today than it was in 1933, which is a bit unfortunate but makes the concept easy for modern audiences to understand. These photographers are, in essence, early paparazzi. Our culture today is, in general, very obsessed with celebrities (both talented and talentless alike), scandals and up-to-the-minute information on what the top 1% are up to. This may have seemed like an extremely seedy career back in the ’30s, but today it is quite commonplace. The film’s attitude that the paper Danny works for is deplorable and that he can redeem himself by becoming a serious journalist provides modern audiences with an accidental social commentary on the nature of today’s entertainment media.
The plot of Picture Snatcher is quite simple, but still keeps the viewer hooked with constant questions over what Danny will do next and whether or not he’ll succeed in all of his goals or assignments. There are a few dull moments in the film, but in general the simplicity of the plot works very well. Danny lived a high-stress life of crime before, and despite the drama of the newspaper business, his life has got to be at least a little bit less hectic, which is portrayed through the film’s slower moments. The excitement really picks up after the big execution scene, and again at the film’s end.
The few stale moments could also have something to do with the chemistry between the performers, particularly between Cagney and his leading ladies. There is much more chemistry between Cagney and Alice White, who has a relatively small role as McLean’s man-eating girlfriend, than there is between Cagney and his actual love interest, Patricia Ellis. The Cagney/White pairing is problematic in terms of the characters because Danny is obviously disinterested in this woman while she’s infatuated by him, but there’s still a great spark between the two actors which I would have liked to see more of between Danny and Pat.
Overall, Picture Snatcher provides the viewer with a good mix of drama, criminal intrigue and humor. The characters are fun and the film, along with the special features that come along with it on the DVD release, are definitely worth any viewer’s time. The score: 4/5