Thursday, June 11, 2009

Movie: Picture Snatcher (1933)

This movie has been on my DVR so long that it has since been released on DVD. On the bright side, if it sounds appealing you can queue it up.

James Cagney plays Danny Kean, a New York hoodlum freshly sprung from the slammer. Only Danny’s decided to go on the straight and narrow, see? He’s gonna follow up on an offer to work as a photographer for a newspaper. Naturally, the rag’s the worst in the Big Apple. Naturally, his editor (Ralph Bellamy) is sneaking shots of hooch at his desk. Naturally, Danny’s got to hustle and cut corners to make his mark.

Does he succeed? It’s a lead pipe cinch. But Danny may take things too far when he returns to the big house – to snatch a picture of a woman in the electric chair at the exact moment of her execution.

This movie is over 75 years old, but the energy in Cagney’s performance feels so contemporary it’s startling. He’s virility incarnate, his every gesture – a wave, an offer of a handshake – a demonstration of aggression. Screw CGI and 3D. From now on, everything should be shot in CagneyVision™.

The plot creaks a bit. The great rollicking metropolis of New York has a population of about twelve when it suits the story. But on the whole Picture Snatcher is like its star, nimble and tough. This is a Pre-Code movie that delivers on the promise of illicit sex and violence. Bellamy’s girl, a reporter on the paper, puts her not-inconsiderable moves on Cagney because he’s a bad boy. Even better, the movie doesn’t punish her for it. And an entire arsenal is deployed during the climactic shootout. It’s seventy-seven minutes of moxie with a wicked sense of humor.

The movie was inspired by the Daily News photographer who strapped a camera to his ankle and snapped a photo of Ruth Snyder as she was electrocuted. In 1927, Queens housewife Snyder and her travelling salesman lover murdered her husband for the insurance money. The case served as an inspiration for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. The scandal surrounding her execution spawned both this movie and its remake Escape From Crime. Years later, Snyder’s cell at Sing Sing was occupied by Martha Beck, one of the Lonely Hearts Killers, whose rampage has been chronicled in at least three films. That has to be one of the strangest intersections of crime and popular culture ever recorded.